clock menu more-arrow no yes

Tom Cotton says ISIS is winning in Iraq. That is false.

Wednesday night, Sen. Tom Cotton went on Wolf Blitzer's Situation Room to talk about Iraq and ISIS. He said something surprising.

"We just haven't rolled back the Islamic State at all over the last six or seven months since we began our air campaign," he said. "They've continued to hold the ground they always have. They haven't advanced, but we haven't rolled them back, either. And that's not going to be enough to defeat them."

"The Islamic State seems to be winning now," Cotton later added.

This is, in fact, the exact opposite of what is occurring. ISIS is losing substantial ground in Iraq, and it's hard to imagine why Cotton is insisting otherwise.

Let's start with his claim that ISIS "hasn't been rolled back" in the past six or seven months. Here are a few places where ISIS has, in fact, been rolled back:

  1. In August, ISIS lost control of the Mosul Dam, a critical part of northern Iraq's infrastructure.
  2. In October, Iraqis pushed ISIS out of Jurf al-Sakhar, a former ISIS stronghold near Baghdad.
  3. In January, Kurdish forces took Kiske, a northern town that sits on a critical ISIS supply line between its territory in Syria and Iraq.
  4. In April, Iraqi forces pushed ISIS out of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's hometown and a major Sunni city.

This is pretty well-established among analysts. As Iraq experts Michael Knights and Alexandre Mello write in the Sentinel, the journal of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, "The Islamic State has been on the defensive in Iraq for more than eight months and it has lost practically every battle it has fought."

"After peaking in August 2014, its area of control has shrunk, slowly but steadily," Knights and Mello add. There's just no way, in other words, to interpret Cotton's statement that ISIS "continued to hold the ground they always have" as correct.

Cotton's implication that American airstrikes have played no role in hurting ISIS is also quite clearly wrongKnights call "Western air/intel" a "key determinant" of ISIS's defeats, as it "greatly reduces [ISIS's] ability to surprise, evade, [and] counterattack" against increasingly effective Iraqi forces.

All of this suggests that Cotton's ultimate conclusion — ISIS is winning — is wrong. In fact, it's been obviously wrong for months.

"The Islamic State ... will lose its battle to hold territory in Iraq," Douglas Ollivant, national security council director for Iraq from 2008 to 2009 and current managing partner at Mantid International, wrote in War on the Rocks in February. "The outcome in Iraq is now clear to most serious analysts."

So why is Cotton so insistent on arguing that ISIS is on a super-successful victory march when it clearly isn't? One hint might be how eager Cotton appeared to be to blame Obama for it all.

"I've lost confidence in President Obama and his administration, and the way that they're executing their strategy," Cotton said. "We need to be more aggressively executing our air campaign, and more aggressively working with our allies on the ground."

There are certainly plenty of legitimate criticisms of the Obama administration's handling of Iraq. They basically ignored Iraq diplomatically after the US troop withdrawal. The current strategy empowers dangerous, Iran-controlled Shia militias who commit atrocities against Sunni civilians. And they have no obvious plan for addressing the root cause of sectarian violence in Iraq: deep disputes between Iraqi Sunni and Shias over who controls the government and how it should work.

Cotton could have made those criticisms — and he would have been right. Instead, the senator constructed a fictitious world in which ISIS is steadfastly holding its territory and winning glorious victories against the West.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for The Weeds

Get our essential policy newsletter delivered Fridays.