On Objectively Evaluating the US ‘Report Card’ in the Fight against Islamic State

A panicky episode recently unfolded in Kirkuk, north of the Iraqi capital Baghdad, as security personnel discovered a youth wearing a suicide vest. Reports indicate that he was abducted by Islamic State terrorists and forced to serve as a human bomb in the attempted attack on the local populace. The Islamic State group is also suspected of being behind the previous “wedding bomber” attack in Turkey.

On Aug. 10, the commander of U.S. military operations against the Islamic State group, Sean MacFarland, told media that the international coalition has eliminated 45,000 Islamic State group militants to date, greatly reducing the organization’s war-fighting capabilities and entirely routing them in some areas. But taken in tandem with the present situation, even some within the U.S. Congress have questioned whether the military’s operational efficacy in the fight against the Islamic State group is being overstated.

As the main force leading the charge against the Islamic State group, U.S. military publications have always been heavily cited in assessments of the situation on the ground in Iraq and Syria. Now, these Pentagon evaluations have been openly called into doubt, a fact that has at least tangentially reminded the international community that various factors have very possibly come into play in making these measures of progress in the fight against the Islamic State group deviate from reality.

First, there is the competition between the United States and Russia. Since Russia began participating in military strikes against the Islamic State group last September, the United States has quite obviously and widely relaxed the degrees of classification for much information pertaining to the results of those U.S.-led strikes, highlighting its own strategic capabilities in fighting terrorism. Second, there is the continued jousting between Democrats and Republicans. The sitting Obama administration is hastening to validate its decision made two years ago to take the fight to the Islamic State group by citing more figures, hoping to use the weight of numbers to silence Republicans who oppose U.S. military action in Iraq and Syria. Third, there is the friction between the military and Congress. Ever since the U.S. military began direct action against the Islamic State group, it has had to work through the obstructions and doubts of the legislature both in its efforts to gain operational authority and set operational time frames. As a consequence, the military has actively placed emphasis on the more sanguine aspects of its counterterrorism campaign, with an eye toward increasing its bargaining power on Capitol Hill.

At the same time, the commander of the U.S. mission’s military force essentially performing a self-evaluation is also an important factor that will influence the overall measure of efforts against the Islamic State group. The U.S. military commander responsible for directing and coordinating strikes against the Islamic State group is appointed for a limited term and steps down after approximately a year of service. Using the aforementioned MacFarland as an example, the general will see his term come to a close at the end of August. And on the eve of the changing of the guard, MacFarland is not only claiming that the Islamic State group has lost “nearly half of what the enemy once controlled in Iraq and 20 percent of what they once controlled in Syria,” but has also cheerily asserted that if Mosul is retaken, the Islamic State group in Iraq will only be able to offer “scattered pockets of resistance.”

Such a rosy view of the horizon is not necessarily a falsification, but in being, after all, a self-written portion of his “end of term report card,” we must wait to see if the general’s objectivity stands the test of time.

For an international community living under constant threat from the Islamic State group, defeating the terrorist organization as soon as possible and seizing a decisive victory on the Middle Eastern battlefield can not come soon enough. But before truly accomplishing this end, assessments of progress and strike results must be made as objective and factual as possible, for invalid evaluations will not only place front-line troops in harm’s way, but can also easily encourage blind optimism that will only give way to chaos and confusion as the situation evolves. A classic example came on Nov. 13 of last year, one day prior to the spate of terrorist attacks in Paris, when U.S. President Barack Obama solemnly declared that the Islamic State group had been “contained,” only to call an emergency meeting of the National Security Council the following day to direct intelligence bodies to reevaluate the Islamic State group threat.

Consequently, in the battle against the Islamic State group, whether it be the United States, Russia, or others among the international forces arrayed against terrorism, all must seek to uphold a cautious attitude and pragmatic spirit when measuring and assessing results, as well as avoiding the distractions and interference of extrinsic factors or selfish interests to the extent that such is possible. At the same time, all must maintain a high level of vigilance to guard against splinter groups branching out from the Middle East, and treat the presence or absence of these as a hard indicator for the defeat of the Islamic State group.

The author is an instructor at the PLA Nanjing Political College.

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