SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Iraq declared victory over ISIS last December after years of brutal fighting. The Islamic State had controlled roughly a third of Iraq, along with parts of Syria. But ISIS now appears to be moving back into the region, launching small-scale attacks in remote areas. The group has also claimed responsibility for a number of bombings in Afghanistan. Jennifer Cafarella studies ISIS at the Institute for the Study of War, a think tank in Washington, D.C., and joins us in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.
JENNIFER CAFARELLA: Thanks for having me.
SIMON: How much worry does ISIS cause you these days?
CAFARELLA: Sure. Well, what we're actually seeing in Iraq is that ISIS, at a certain point in the ground campaign, recognized that it was going to lose all of the cities under its control. ISIS could not actually withstand the combination of American air power and the Iraqi and Syrian ground offensives that were able to recapture that terrain. But that didn't mean that ISIS lost the will to fight.
And what we actually saw is ISIS take a number of decisions to preserve local capabilities - to go to ground in order to prepare to fight the next phase of this war. So the early signs of resurgence that we're seeing in Iraq and the continued presence we're seeing in Syria is, in some ways, a sign of what's to come. It's an indication that ISIS is not only committed to continuing to fight but has prepared to do so and has actually launched the next phase.
SIMON: When you say go to ground, this means they didn't necessarily fight back immediately. They decided to bury themselves, I guess - right? - and hide and live for the other day. Did the U.S. and other countries miss an opportunity then? What did they do wrong?
CAFARELLA: I do think we missed an opportunity. The anti-ISIS campaign was very focused on the ground war, on retaking the cities and less focused actually on setting the conditions to include the political and economic and humanitarian conditions that would prevent ISIS from resurging. So we recaptured the cities, but we didn't eliminate the ISIS ability to return. And I think that was an oversight. And sadly, it means, I think, we're going to watch this movie play again in terms of the ISIS resurgence.
SIMON: You're suggesting that if the United States is serious about stopping ISIS again, this would be recommitting troops - another military campaign doing it correctly?
CAFARELLA: Well, at the minimum, we need to preserve the forces we have in this region. President Trump has made some statements indicating his intent to withdraw from Syria. And it's actually an open question whether the U.S. will remain committed to staying in Iraq. So the first thing we need to do is commit to this moving forward. The question of whether additional forces is necessary is still open at this stage. ISIS is still early enough in its resurgence that I think we actually could deal with it with the forces that we have if we had the will and the commitment to do so.
SIMON: You sound like you think it would be a mistake to take U.S. forces out of Syria.
CAFARELLA: It would absolutely.
SIMON: ISIS is murderous. What makes them so resilient?
CAFARELLA: Well, in part, the murderous nature - this is, you know, essentially a death cult that intends to impose their own apocalyptic vision on society. But they're also a professional military organization. They've done this before. They fought a war, were defeated and resurged. And so what we're seeing is that they have the institutional memory. They are a learning and adapting organization. And they're still committed to their war.
SIMON: And what are they doing in Iraq - forgive me - Afghanistan?
CAFARELLA: In Afghanistan, it's a bit of a different story. ISIS has been attempting to generate local presence in Afghanistan since 2014. Their success has ebbed and flowed. But what we've seen over the past year is that the U.S. has started targeting ISIS - both ground fighters and the leadership elements in Afghanistan - in an attempt to blunt their growth. These strikes have eliminated a lot of ISIS members from the battlefield but haven't actually been able to prevent ISIS from continuing to recruit - so some dangerous signs there in terms of the ISIS growth in America's longest war.
SIMON: Jennifer Cafarella, of the Institute for the Study of War, thanks so much for being with us today.
CAFARELLA: Thank you.
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