Islamic State Lying in Wait for Resurgence, U.S. General Says

(Bloomberg) -- The departing U.S. commander in the fight against Islamic State offered a grim assessment of the group’s threat for a resurgence even after it loses its last territorial stronghold in Syria.

“The fight against ISIS and violent extremism is far from over,” General Joseph Votel, the head of U.S. Central Command, told the House Armed Services Committee on Thursday.

Votel, who’s stepping down this month, said Islamic State’s “caliphate,” which once stretched across a swath of Iraq and Syria, is down to less than a single square mile. But he offered a more sober prediction for the future than President Donald Trump, who has treated the end of the caliphate as a turning point and a rationale for his decision to remove most U.S. troops from Syria.

Islamic State has made a “calculated decision to preserve the safety of their families and preservation of their capabilities by taking their chances in camps for internally displaced persons, and going to ground in remote areas and waiting for the right time to resurge,” Votel said.

At its peak, Islamic State ruled territory the size of Britain, with a population of more than 10 million people, according to the Brookings Institution.

Representative Adam Smith of Washington state, the committee’s Democratic chairman, criticized Trump’s announcement by tweet in December that he was bringing U.S. troops home from Syria.

“What seems to be driving the withdrawal is the president’s split-second decision to send out a tweet saying we’re gonna get out of Syria,” he said. “In terms of the public perception, the international perception, is that prior to that tweet it wasn’t planned. He sent it out, now we’re responding.”

Votel said he’s confident that the U.S. and allies “will have the capabilities we need” after Trump later backed off and agreed to keep 400 of the roughly 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria indefinitely.

Trump also has pledged that he’ll reduce the 14,000 American troops in Afghanistan. After losing more than 2,300 U.S. soldiers and spending more than $900 billion in Afghanistan since 2001, critics say the U.S. risks losing hard-won gains in what’s become America’s longest war.

“The political conditions, and where we are in the reconciliation right now, don’t merit that,” Votel said when asked about conditions to withdrawal forces.

The Trump administration is seeking an agreement with the Taliban that would let American troops come home in return for promises not to shelter terrorists threatening to the U.S. That would require a breakthrough brokered by his special envoy on Afghan reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, who has been meeting separately with Taliban and Afghani officials in search of a solution.

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