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Are We Winning the War Against ISIS?

The U.S. and its allies have driven the terrorist group from much of its territory. But truly defeating it is a lot more complicated.

When Iraqi forces finally retook Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, from the terrorist group ISIS this summer after a nine-month battle, they came upon scenes of horrible carnage.

The fighting had reduced buildings to rubble, streets were littered with the burnt-out remains of cars and strewn with dead bodies, and the city's liberators found starving families who'd huddled for weeks in basements to escape the gunfire.

ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) had controlled the city since 2014, subjecting residents to its brutal rule and punishing opponents with torture or death. The battle to push ISIS out of Mosul killed more than 40,000 civilians and forced nearly a million others to flee.

The fall of the city to Iraqi troops supported by the United States was a major blow to ISIS--and the latest in a string of defeats for the radical Islamist group. Experts say ISIS has lost about 60 percent of its territory since January 2015, from an estimated 35,000 square miles to 14,000 square miles today (see map, p. 16). In recent months, the U.S. and its allies have also killed top ISIS leaders, reduced the number of ISIS fighters, and cut off much of its oil supply--a major source of income.

"These are obviously major blows to ISIS," says Hassan Hassan of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy in Washington, D.C. But "its leadership and its ability to grow back are still there."

Indeed, experts warn that the fight against ISIS is far from complete. The organization continues to attract followers, carry out terrorist attacks in the region and beyond, and inspire extremists around the world to kill innocent people in ISIS's name.

The Rise of ISIS

ISIS traces its roots to one of the radical groups that emerged in Iraq during the violent years that followed the 2003 American invasion. The group merged with other extremist groups in Syria to form what is now known as ISIS. Its goal from the beginning has been to re-establish a state ruled by strict Islamic law, known as a caliphate, like the ones that dominated the Middle East in past centuries. It also aims to destroy the West.

The group's followers, Sunni Muslims, are engaged in a bitter rivalry with members of Islam's other major sect, the Shiites. (That's why ISIS sees the Shiite-led governments of Iraq and Syria as enemies.)

When Syria erupted into a civil war in 2011, ISIS took advantage of the disorder and began seizing territory. In December 2013, the group turned its attention back to Iraq, capturing a vast area of land and terrorizing people under its control. It publicly executed opponents, sold thousands into slavery, and forced religious minorities to convert to Islam or die. It also seized oil refineries, required people to pay high taxes, and stole hundreds of millions of dollars from Iraq's national bank. In June 2014, ISIS declared its conquered territory the new caliphate of the Islamic State.

In response, then-President Barack Obama authorized a bombing campaign intended to wipe out ISIS. Since then, an international coalition led by the U.S. has conducted more than 12,000 air-strikes against ISIS in Iraq and 10,000 in Syria.

As ISIS is driven back, experts say its goal of establishing an actual state is crumbling. Having lost oil reserves and tax revenue, the group's average monthly income has plummeted 80 percent, from $81 million in 2015 to $16 million this year. And according to U.S. officials, more than 60,000 ISIS fighters have been killed since June 2014--a loss of about 75 percent.

Despite such victories, defeating ISIS for good won't be easy. The group still controls parts of Iraq and Syria and has gained a foothold in other countries, including Afghanistan and the Philippines.

It also continues to attract recruits through a worldwide social media campaign that targets alienated Muslims--and to inspire people to commit violence in its name. ISIS carried out or inspired a series of recent attacks in Europe, including ones in London, Paris, and at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England. In the U.S., ISIS claimed responsibility for the 2016 attack at a nightclub in Orlando, Florida, that killed 49 people.

Fear of What's Next

As Iraqi and U.S. forces continue to retake territory from ISIS, another challenge will be to rebuild-- and stabilize--war-torn areas in Iraq and Syria so people displaced by ISIS can return home. That includes clearing the rubble, repairing housing, creating jobs, restoring electricity, and establishing strong local governments.

"When the fighting stops, the humanitarian crisis continues," says Lise Grande of the United Nations.

Another question is whether U.S. troops will stay in Iraq and Syria to prevent ISIS--or another terrorist organization--from gaining ground. President Trump is expected to send nearly 4,000 troops to Afghanistan, in part to help combat ISIS (see "ISIS in Afghanistan," right).

Many people whose lives have been destroyed by ISIS are relieved that the group is under siege-at least for now.

"I am happy that [ISIS] is dying," says Ahmed Abdul-Qadir, a native of Syria. "But the fear of what might come next is killing this happiness."

With reporting by Ben Hubbard, Eric Schmitt, Tim Arango, and Michael R. Gordon of The New York Times.


President Trump is sending more American troops to Afghanistan, in part to fight ISIS

In August, President Trump announced that he would send additional U.S. troops to fight in the war in Afghanistan. The decision was partly a response to gains made by the Taliban, the radical Islamist group ousted from power by the U.S. when the war began in 2001. But another big reason for the move was that ISIS has begun to infiltrate Afghanistan, as it looks to branch out from Syria and Iraq.

ISIS took responsibility for a July suicide bombing at the Iraqi embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan's capital, and for an August attack on a mosque in Herat that killed 29 people. And it recently overran government forces in the district of Darzab in northern Afghanistan, with the aid of Taliban fighters who pledged allegiance to ISIS.

"ISIS is more powerful than the Taliban were in Darzab because their fighters are brave," says Hajji Obaidullah, the district's former police chief.

The U.S. now has about 11,000 troops in Afghanistan fighting in what's become the longest conflict in American history. The war began in 2001, following the 9/11 terrorist attacks against the U.S. The Taliban had given safe haven to the terrorist group Al Oaeda, which launched the 9/11 attacks. U.S. forces quickly ousted the Taliban, but the group has fought an insurgent war ever since against the U.S. and its allies, including the Afghan government. Since 2001, almost 2,400 American soldiers have died and 20,000 have been wounded in Afghanistan.

Before becoming president, Trump said the U.S. should withdraw from Afghanistan. But in August he decided to commit more troops. He didn't give a precise number, but members of Congress have said it could be about 4,000.

"A hasty withdrawal," Trump said, "would create a vacuum for terrorists, including ISIS."

Caption: ISIS fighters shown in a propaganda video produced by the group

Caption: Manchester, England: A young woman injured in the ISIS attack at an Ariana Grande concert in May

Caption: Losing Ground Territory controlled by ISIS in Iraq and Syria

Caption: U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, June 2017
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Title Annotation:INTERNATIONAL
Author:Zissou, Rebecca
Publication:New York Times Upfront
Date:Oct 9, 2017
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