- By John HudsonJohn Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013.
Despite mounting fears of new terror strikes at home, a senior U.S. official said the Islamic State was steadily losing both territory and fighters in Iraq and Syria as Washington and its allies press the group on the ground and from the air.
Brett McGurk, the State Department’s point man in the battle against the Islamic State, said the militant group has lost 47 percent of the territory it previously controlled in Iraq, a sharp reduction in the size of its self-declared caliphate. In addition, he said the group had roughly 18,000 to 22,000 fighters, a decrease from the estimated 33,000 militants it had in 2014.
“Whereas [the Islamic State] once promised lavish pay for recruits and free services in its ‘caliphate,’ it is now slashing pay, cannot provide services, and is facing internal resistance,” McGurk said. “We know from other sources, as well, that [Islamic State] fighters are panicking on the battlefield, foreign recruits are now looking to return home, and leaders are struggling to maintain discipline, even despite the threat of execution for disobedience.”
McGurk’s optimistic assessment of the fight against the group in Iraq and Syria contrasted with the terror fears sparked by the deadly attack in an Orlando, Florida, nightclub earlier this month by a disturbed gunman who pledged allegiance to the Islamic State before killing 49 people in the worst mass shooting in American history. Last year, a husband-and-wife team of extremists who also said they were acting in the name of the Islamic State, murdered 14 people in San Bernardino, California.
GOP presumptive presidential nominee Donald Trump has cited those attacks as proof that the Obama administration isn’t doing enough to combat the Islamic State, and lawmakers on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee pressed the administration to ramp up the tempo of the Islamic State fight.
On Tuesday, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, asked McGurk if progress in the battle against the Islamic State in Iraq could prompt the group to launch more terrorist attacks against the West. McGurk said “lone wolf” attacks remain possible even as the group loses ground because they “are very difficult to stop.” At the same time, he noted that the group “has been talking about attacking us for years.”
McGurk said law enforcement had found no evidence of a direct link between the Orlando shooter and the Islamic State. He defended the administration’s approach of assisting indigenous fighters on the ground through air power and special forces advisors.
Much of the prepared testimony by McGurk, who formerly served as the deputy assistant secretary of state for Iraq and Iran, described recent battlefield gains in the fight against the Islamic State. He also stressed that pivotal battles were looming in Iraq and Syria.
In Syria, McGurk highlighted an ongoing operation inside Manbij, a stretch of territory in northern Syria that has allowed foreign fighters to move in and out of Syria. He said a coalition of Kurds, Arabs, Syriac Christians, and Turkmen — backed by U.S. warplanes — were currently fighting to prevent the Islamic State from using the transit route. “As we speak, these fighters are now entering the city limits, under cover of coalition air support,” he said.
Offering a preview of the administration’s war planning, he said once Manbij is cleared, the U.S.-led coalition will move onto the Islamic State’s de facto capital in Raqqa. “It’s hard fighting,” he said. “Once that is done, that sets the conditions for Raqqa.”
In his prepared testimony, McGurk said the “greatest challenge” would be the recapture of the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul in Iraq. Last week, Iraqi forces began an operation to cut off the routes into the city from smaller towns such as Hawija and Sharqat in Kirkuk and Salahuddin provinces. “This operation is now underway and making considerable progress, enabled by Apache helicopters and other accelerants authorized by the president in April,” McGurk said in his testimony.
He also said the United States was working to clear the Islamic State from Syria’s “tri-border region” near Jordan and the Golan Heights, which could pose a threat to Israel. He noted that as the Islamic State has suffered battlefield losses, it has telegraphed its desire to attack the Jewish state, “clearly hoping to generate international headlines to compensate for its defeats.”
“We must not allow this to happen,” he said.