PENTAGON - A key U.S. military official is warning world leaders not to mistake progress against the Islamic State and other terror groups for victory.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford called progress in the fight against IS in Iraq and Syria “particularly encouraging," but urged U.S. allies to maintain pressure on Islamic State, as well as al-Qaida across the Middle East and beyond.
“Perhaps the greatest challenge facing us today is the danger of complacency,” Dunford told the Chiefs of Defense Conference on Countering-Violent Extremist Organizations, just outside of Washington, Tuesday.
“A misreading of our progress to date and a misunderstanding of the character of the threat may cause political leaders to lose focus on violent extremism while they move on to other pressing challenges,” Dunford said. “There’s many examples over the last few years when we have relieved pressure, they have reconstituted only to grow more virulent."
Gains against terror groups
U.S. officials have touted gains against IS and other terror groups, noting the number of terrorist attacks worldwide, and deaths as a result of those attacks, have declined three years in a row.
All attacks by IS itself declined 23 percent from 2016 to 2017, its media production is down, and the group has lost all but two-percent of the territory it once held in Iraq and Syria at the peak of its self-declared caliphate.
Still, military and intelligence official caution IS has been putting up a tough fight, especially in the Middle Euphrates River Valley in Syria where coalition-backed forces have been fighting for months to evict IS fighters from their last remaining territory.
Recent arrests targeting senior financial facilitators have also found IS operatives in Baghdad and Irbil, parts of Iraq long thought to have been mostly cleared of Islamic State cells.
IS still putting up a fight
And despite the collapse of the group’s self-declared caliphate, U.S. officials believe foreign fighters are still making their way to Syria and Iraq to take up the cause, with an estimated 100 entering the region each month.
Recent Pentagon estimates also indicate the total number of IS fighters across Syria and Iraq remains high, with up to about 32,000 still able and willing to put up a fight.
Coalition officials said pockets of increased IS resistance have popped up in Iraq as well, in places like the Anbar desert and Ramadi, where recent Iraqi operations captured 28 suspected fighters and thousands of explosives.
IS contingents have also embarked on a campaign in and around Kirkuk, to destroy critical infrastructure.
“They’re trying to destroy the water lines to get discontent from the civilians,” Operation Inherent Resolve spokesman, Col. Sean Ryan, told Pentagon reporters Tuesday during a video briefing from Baghdad.
Ryan described the IS operation, which has also targeted power lines and mobile phone towers, as “a death of a thousand cuts to the population.”
Islamic State 'far from defeated'
Dunford on Tuesday warned the Islamic State terror group “is far from defeated” and “already evolving to implement a more diffuse model of command and control and operations.”
But the U.S. general added IS is not the only concern, warning al-Qaida is also “enhancing collaboration with its affiliates and increasing connectivity and access to operatives and targets.”
“Both groups are operating in a more dispersed and clandestine way, leveraging the internet to keep the narrative alive, and becoming less susceptible to conventional military action,” Dunford said.
There are also concerns about the ability of the United States and its allies and partners on the ground to “win the peace” and help make sure that IS and al-Qaida are not able to take advantage of poor governance and poor economic prospects.
“Little progress has been made in addressing the underlying conditions that lead to violent extremism,” he said.
Another ongoing concern is the fate of more than 700 IS fighters from more than 40 countries, currently being held by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces.
Dunford urged U.S. allies and other countries to stop stalling and take the fighters back.
“The progress in returning these fighters home for prosecution has been delayed by political considerations and inconsistent legal frameworks," he said. “We need to find a way to address this challenge and prevent the detainees from becoming the leaders of tomorrow’s extremist organizations.”