It was a friend of mine, a guy who was once a senior desk assistant at Nightline who apparently hung the banner, “MISSION ACCOMPLISHED” behind President George W. Bush as he told U.S. Navy personnel on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln on May 1, 2003, that the U.S. was ready to declare victory in Iraq.
Reporters in Iraq wondered, “do we laugh or do we cry?” because even then, before the armed anti-American insurgency had really begun in earnest, much of what had by then been accomplished was chaos.
There was an American-run “provisional government” that actually governed little, and an Iraqi population thrown into disarray, because literally millions of people had seen their family economies destroyed. That’s what happened when American proconsul Paul Bremer disbanded the army and tossed every member of the Ba’ath Party out of his or her government job. Booting the Ba’athists meant there were almost no teachers in classrooms and no maintenance men at power plants. Dissolving the army meant that there were no soldiers to secure dozens of Saddam Houssein’s weapons arsenals around the country. Those guns and bullets quickly went to the Sunni insurgency.
But in the annals of ignorant and incorrect self-assertion, President Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” boast may now have been surpassed by Donald Trump.
The president, on a stopover on his return from his confused second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jung-Un, told troops at the shared U.S. Army-Air Force Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Alaska, “We just took over 100 percent of territory controlled by the Islamic State in Syria. You kept hearing it was 90 percent, 92 percent. Now it’s 100 percent, we just took over.”
Almost immediately, a senior official with the Syrian Democratic Forces, the mixed Kurdish-Arab militia doing the actual ground fighting responded, “It’s 100 percent not true. The fighting continues.”
Asked who was right, public affairs people at the Pentagon refused to answer. “Ask the White House,” they advised.
We won. Hooray for us, has been the Trump administration theme for weeks now. At the Munich Security Conference, Vice President Mike Pence told a disbelieving audience of government leaders, “we have one mile of territory left to capture. Literally within hours or days, the ISIS caliphate will be no more.”
More recently, this claim was made even more categorical by Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, who said in Brussels, as safe a distance from the Mideast action as Munich, if not Alaska: “ISIS, they no longer hold geography. They no longer govern in the spaces they once held. Their finances have been annihilated. Their ability to communicate on social media has been destroyed. They’ve been defeated.”
Tell that to the Iraqis. Even as the allied military noose tightened around the so-called last ISIS enclave of Baghuz near the Iraq-Syria border, car bombs went off in the city of Mosul and a town 50 miles south of it, killing two people and wounding 28. Who dunnit? Most people’s first and best guess is ISIS, the Islamic State.
DAESH, as it’s known in Arabic is down, no doubt, but out? Maybe not.
Philip Issa is an AP correspondent based in Baghdad. He covered Syria and Lebanon for the AP from 2015 to 2018 before moving to Iraq. He has been living in the region since 2012.