Fight Against Islamic State ‘Far From Over’: US Commander

/ 01:05 AM March 09, 2019

The top US commander for the Middle East said Thursday that allies in Syria need to maintain a “vigilant offensive” against the Islamic State group, saying they remain unbroken and prepared for a resurgence despite the elimination of their physical base.

“Reduction of the physical caliphate is a monumental military accomplishment — but the fight against ISIS and violent extremism is far from over and our mission remains the same,” US Central Command head General Joseph Votel told Congress, using an alternative acronym for the jihadists.

“The ISIS population being evacuated from the remaining vestiges of the caliphate largely remains unrepentant, unbroken and radicalized. We will need to maintain a vigilant offensive against this now widely dispersed and disaggregated organization,” he said. Votel, who is expected to retire in the coming months, told the House Armed Services Committee that the next phase of the fight will be dealing with a “disaggregated organization” of leaders, fighters, and facilitators hiding under cover but still motivated by extremist ideology.

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“This will look very much like an insurgency. We will see low-level attacks. we’ll see assassinations, we’ll see IED attacks, we’ll see ambush-type things as they begin to emerge from this.” Votel spelled out his warnings nearly three months after President Donald Trump unexpectedly announced a full pullout of US forces from Syria, declaring a victory over IS.

Under pressure from Congress and the Pentagon, Trump has since moderated his preference to a slower drawdown, though insisting last month that the plan was to ultimately to leave a bare-bones force of only 200 “peace-keeping” troops in Syria.

Votel warned as well that the hundreds of foreign IS fighters and their families captured in Syria and now mostly in the hands of the Syrian Democratic Forces are very dangerous and called on their home countries to deal with them. “In my view this is a serious generational problem that if not handled properly will sow the seeds of future violent extremism,” he said.

“As the president has said, they need to go back to their nations where they can be properly prosecuted.” He said the US drawdown in Syria is leaving the country more open for Russians to expand their geopolitical position. “They look at it as this is an opportunity to fill the void.”  “It makes Russia a bigger player in this area and … solidifies their presence in the Middle East,” he said.

Votel also told the House panel that conditions in Afghanistan are not right for a withdrawal despite Trump’s goal of a drawdown. Despite some positive signs in talks between the United States and the Taliban forces, “We have not been directed to withdraw. There are no orders to withdraw anything,” Votel said. After 17 years in Afghanistan and with 14,000 American troops still deployed, “the political conditions of where we are in the reconciliation right now don’t merit” withdrawal, he said. “These decisions have to be based more on conditions than specific times” and must “pivot off political progress.”

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