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Samantha Putterman
By Samantha Putterman July 15, 2020

Experts say Trump deserves some credit for ISIS decline, but it’s not completely defeated

In 2016, then-candidate Donald Trump vowed to defeat ISIS, the Islamic militant group that seized control of territory in Syria and Iraq starting in 2014.

During a campaign rally, Trump said, if elected, his generals would have "30 days to submit to the Oval Office a plan for soundly and quickly defeating ISIS."

Trump did issue a presidential memorandum in January 2017 requesting such a plan, and his first defense secretary, James Mattis, met with the president about a month later to discuss options.

Fast forward to October 2019: Trump says his administration is responsible for defeating "100%" of the ISIS caliphate. Weeks later, when he announced the death of Islamic State leader Abu al-Baghdadi, he walked that back and said the figure is closer to 70%. 

Now, near the end of Trump's term, ISIS appears to have largely fizzled out. But has it really been "soundly" defeated? And is it because of Trump's plan?

It's complicated.

Experts told us that ISIS is significantly weaker, but not gone. They also said that Trump largely built on President Obama's strategy to fight the group  — and they acknowledged that it took Obama a long time to devise and implement a strategy. 

"Trump more fully resourced the strategy and deserves a fair share of the credit for its ultimate success — but he did not invent it," said Michael O'Hanlon, a foreign-policy specialist at the Brookings Institution. "As for ISIS, it no longer has significant territorial holdings, and its top leader has been killed. It is weaker than when Trump came to office, organizationally and ideologically and territorially. Trump again deserves some credit. But again, that was mostly due to the implementation of a strategy that he inherited."  

Will Todman, an associate fellow in the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that although ISIS is significantly weaker than it once was, it hasn't been defeated and probably never will be. 

He told us that the group continues to operate as an insurgency in Iraq and Syria, where it conducted at least 600 attacks from January to May 2020, showing that it remains a serious threat.

"Many of the economic, political and social factors that motivated the rise of the terrorist group remain or have even worsened. ISIS has also expanded its influence in other areas, including in Africa and Central Asia, and so the focus is shifting," Todman wrote in an email. "However, ISIS controls no territory in Iraq or Syria, and its capabilities are nothing in comparison to what they were at the height of their 'caliphate' or when President Trump took office."

Trump, he wrote, continued Obama's strategy and accelerated it "in part by loosening the rules of engagement. That led to greater levels of destruction, particularly in urban spaces, and greater numbers of civilian deaths were recorded as a result." 

ISIS is much weaker now than when Trump came into office, and experts tell us he deserves some credit for applying more resources to the fight. But the strategy he used was largely inherited from the Obama administration, and ISIS is still operating in some areas. We rate this promise a Compromise.

Our Sources Presidential Memorandum Plan to Defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, Jan. 28 2017 

IHS Markit, "Islamic State Territory Down 60 Percent and Revenue Down 80 Percent on Caliphate's Third Anniversary," June 29, 2017

PolitiFact, Donald Trump: ISIS territory losses near 100 percent, Jan. 30, 2018

PolitiFact, Mike Pence wrong that ISIS has been defeated, Jan 17, 2019

Roll Call, Trump walks back claim of defeating '100% of the ISIS caliphate', Oct. 28, 2019

Congressional Research Service, "The Islamic State and U.S. Policy," Sept. 25, 2018

Wilson Center, ISIS: Resilient on Sixth Anniversary, June 18, 2020

Email interview, Email interview with Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institute, Oct. 8, 2019

Email interview, Will Todman associate fellow in the Middle East program and the Center for Strategic and International Studies, June 23, 2020

Jon Greenberg
By Jon Greenberg February 28, 2017

Trump touts plan he ordered on ISIS

In his successful run for the presidency, Donald Trump often focused on ISIS, an acronym for the brutal Islamic fundamentalist group that seized control of territory in Syria and Iraq. One time, Trump said he would "bomb the hell" out of them. He claimed to have a plan to defeat them, but he refused to describe it, saying he didn't want to tip off extremists.

In a major foreign policy speech Aug. 15, then-candidate Trump said his administration would "aggressively pursue joint and coalition military operations to crush and destroy ISIS." A few weeks later at a campaign rally, he promised to take the preliminary step of crafting a winning strategy.

"We are going to convene my top generals and give them a simple instruction," Trump said on Sept. 6, "They will have 30 days to submit to the Oval Office a plan for soundly and quickly defeating ISIS."

On Jan. 28, 2017, Trump made good with a presidential memorandum. The key line was,"within 30 days, a preliminary draft of the Plan to defeat ISIS shall be submitted to the president by the secretary of defense."

The Pentagon sent Trump a preliminary framework Feb. 27. Defense Secretary James Mattis and other military planners met with the president the same day to discuss options to move decisively against ISIS.

Tump discussed the plan during an address to Congress on Feb. 28:

"As promised, I directed the Department of Defense to develop a plan to demolish and destroy ISIS, a network of lawless savages that have slaughtered Muslims and Christians and men, and women and children of all faiths and all beliefs. We will work with our allies, including our friends and allies in the Muslim world, to extinguish this vile enemy from our planet."

So Trump said he would ask for a plan, and he did. He said the plan would be one for "soundly and quickly defeating ISIS." Whether the plan actually leads to the defeat of ISIS is another matter. For now, we rate this promise In the Works.

Our Sources

President Donald Trump, speech to Congress, Feb. 28, 2017

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