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State Department Floats Plans to Reshuffle Counter-Islamic State Envoy Office

By February 27, 2021News, Print

The proposed move has sparked internal debates over the future of U.S. counterterrorism efforts.

Then-U.S. President Donald Trump speaks on the Islamic State terror group.

Then-U.S. President Donald Trump delivers remarks to ministers of the Global Coalition to Defeat the Islamic State at the U.S. State Department in Washington, on Feb. 6, 2019. ALEX WONG/GETTY IMAGES

President Joe Biden’s administration is planning to transfer the State Department’s special envoy office charged with leading the anti-Islamic State coalition to the bureau that handles counterterrorism, current and former officials told Foreign Policy. The reshuffle reflects how the new administration views the next phase in the fight against the terrorist organization that once controlled vast swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria—but has sparked debates over how to continue the fight against terrorism while shifting the United States’ foreign-policy attention to China.

Some officials have advocated for the change, given that the Islamic State no longer controls a physical caliphate. Other officials, however, privately argue the decision would, in effect, “downgrade” the office to a lower status within the U.S. government even as the terrorist group threatens a resurgence. They also argue the move would signal to coalition partners and allies that Washington is downgrading the fight against the Islamic State after nearly seven years of diplomatic spadework to build up a worldwide coalition.

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“While as a general matter we do not discuss ongoing internal deliberations, the Biden administration is committed to carrying forward the important mission to defeat ISIS,” a State Department spokesperson said in response. “The 83-member Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS remains critically important to our efforts to ensure ISIS’s lasting defeat,” the spokesperson said, adding that U.S. commitments to coalition members and “partners on the ground in Iraq and Syria remains unwavering.”

If the plan is carried out, the office of the Special Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat the Islamic State would be moved to the State Department’s existing counterterrorism bureau, and the Biden administration would not appoint a new, separate special envoy for the coalition. Instead, the State Department’s counterterrorism coordinator would permanently adopt the dual-hatted role of both counterterrorism coordinator and special envoy. In practice, this means that the experts working against the Islamic State would no longer report directly to the secretary of state’s office and instead to the counterterrorism coordinator, current and former officials said.

The proposed move also underscores divisions within the U.S. government on whether to consider the threat from the Islamic State fully contained, even after former President Donald Trump boasted that the caliphate was “100 percent” defeated.

Biden himself voiced concerns over the threat of a regrouped Islamic State during a speech for the Munich Security Conference on Feb. 19. “We cannot allow ISIS to reopen and regroup and threaten people in the Middle East, in Europe, in the United States, and elsewhere,” he said.

“ISIS is contained in Iraq and Syria, but military efforts have done about as much as they can realistically do, and any breakdown of the fragile state of affairs in both countries could give ISIS the opportunity to resurge,” an outgoing U.S. official familiar with the situation told Foreign Policy. “The underlying conditions in the region are really no better than they were in 2012 or after the fall of Saddam that led to the rise of [al Qaeda in Iraq] and then ISIS. And it’s not clear that those conditions will improve much in the short term.”

The plan, which was briefed to congressional staffers on Jan. 6—the same day as the U.S. Capitol riot—is expected to be formalized as a congressional notification from the State Department in the coming weeks, officials said. Lawmakers and their staff expressed support for the proposed move following the briefing but remain concerned about the potential resurgence of the Islamic State in the region, according to a congressional aide briefed on the matter.

In the meantime, Secretary of State Antony Blinken has given authority of the special envoy to the acting counterterrorism coordinator, John Godfrey, according to an internal bureau announcement sent on Tuesday and seen by Foreign Policy.

The special envoy’s office was set up in the wake of the Islamic State’s rapid rise to power in 2014. It coordinated efforts by dozens of other countries to help roll back the group’s caliphate, which, at its height, controlled territory that spanned a third of Iraq and Syria.

The Islamic State is still active as a terrorist organization and remains a lingering threat to the region, experts said. But some former officials see the closure of the envoy’s office as a natural move, following the defeat of the group’s territorial caliphate in March 2019, when U.S.-backed Syrian forces recaptured the group’s last stronghold in Baghouz, Syria.

“With the defeat of the so-called geographic caliphate of ISIS, it makes sense for the State Department to roll the D-ISIS task force back into the overall counterterrorism effort,” said Michael Mulroy, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East during the Trump administration who advised the Biden transition effort and now serves as an ABC News analyst.

The Trump administration had first outlined plans to fold the defeat-Islamic State effort into the counterterrorism bureau but had lobbied the incoming Biden administration to salvage the U.S. special envoy for Syria, a former senior U.S. official told Foreign Policy on the condition of anonymity.

The past two special envoys for the coalition, Brett McGurk and James Jeffrey, both fought off pressure from Turkey to cut U.S. military support for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, which played an instrumental role in recapturing territory from the Islamic State. U.S. support for the Kurdish forces has inflamed tensions between Washington and Ankara, which has waged a low-level war against Kurdish separatist groups for decades.

McGurk resigned in protest after Trump announced a snap withdrawal from Syria in December 2018 via tweet, a move that critics said effectively abandoned the United States’ Kurdish allies. Biden tapped McGurk to serve as his top National Security Council aide on the Middle East.

The enduring presence of the counter-Islamic State offices also became controversial among some who saw it as taking resources from other priorities. In a survey conducted by the Pentagon’s powerful policy shop last May and obtained by Foreign Policy, an employee complained that the task force had outlived its purpose and gone beyond its original mandate, and it called for the agency to spread the organization’s staff to other parts of the Pentagon. Trump appointees at the Defense Department later did away with the Pentagon’s own Defeat-Islamic State task force and fired its top official, Christopher Maier. Maier, a holdover from the Obama administration, returned to the Pentagon in January in a new role overseeing special operations forces, Politico reported.

The decision to transform the effort against the Islamic State comes as the United States has begun to take a more hands-off approach to fighting the terror group, which no longer controls territory in Iraq and Syria but has reemerged as a threat by staging hit-and-run attacks and bombings in smaller cells.

A multiagency inspector general report released this week said U.S. troops had moved to “advising and enabling” forces like the Syrian Democratic Forces and Iraqi Armed Forces. In Iraq, the U.S. force, which thinned to 2,500 troops at the end of the Trump administration, is now operating out of just a few areas: Baghdad’s Green Zone and airport, the Ain al-Asad airbase in Anbar province, and the populous city of Erbil in the Kurdish-controlled northern territories. Approximately 900 U.S. troops remain in Syria.

But in the past two weeks, their presence has been imperiled by rocket attacks. On Feb. 15, the Erbil base, which is controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government, was pummeled with a rocket attack that killed one non-U.S. civilian contractor and injured nine others, including one U.S. service member. U.S. officials blame Shiite militants for the attack. Another rocket attack on Monday targeted Baghdad’s Green Zone, but no casualties were reported.

Some experts and former officials said folding the counter-Islamic State envoy office would give the U.S. more flexibility to tackle the spread of Islamic State to new regions, such as Africa and Southeast Asia.

“They should also take what they learned to address the global ISIS problem, which … is spreading to areas outside the Middle East and growing,” Mulroy said.

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer