Barzani is in a position to know, because he’s had a front-row seat to the war against ISIS from the start. Before he became prime minister in June, Barzani was an influential U.S. partner in the war against ISIS as the top security official in the Iraq’s Kurdish region, which is semiautonomous from Iraq’s central government in Baghdad. Kurdish fighters, called peshmerga, defended their territory from the ISIS onslaught in 2014 even as entire divisions of the U.S.-trained Iraqi security forces melted away; they not only proved to be some of America’s most effective military allies in the country, but their spies fed intelligence to the Americans, their officials helped coordinate U.S. air strikes, and their counterterrorism units worked alongside U.S. special operators. Thousands of Kurdish fighters, called peshmerga, have been killed and wounded in the anti-ISIS campaign.
Barzani has watched with concern as Trump zigzagged on the presence of American troops who were supporting Syrian Kurds in their own anti-ISIS fight, then ramped up a confrontation with Iran that has thrown the U.S. mission in Iraq into uncertainty. After Trump ordered the killing of the Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad in January, Iraqi politicians vowed to eject the the 5,000 U.S. troops stationed in the country for the ISIS campaign. Their status remains in limbo. Barzani, whose government relies heavily on U.S. support, did not directly criticize Trump for the Soleimani killing, saying he was “surprised” by it and wanted to de-escalate regional tensions.
Meanwhile, more than five years into the U.S.-led war—and after many statements by Trump heralding the Islamic State’s defeat—the group still has some 20,000 fighters across Iraq and Syria, Barzani told us. (A Pentagon report last summer put the number of ISIS fighters between 14,000 and 18,000. Estimates by analysts and U.S. officials put the number around 10,000 when it announced its caliphate in the summer of 2014.) ISIS is still managing to carry out 60 attacks a month in Iraq alone against security forces and local rivals, Barzani said, as it regroups around a core of hardened fighters.
U.S. military officials and Western and regional politicians have never stopped warning about the Islamic State’s ability to recruit fighters and launch attacks. When Trump ordered a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria in October, he faced bipartisan resistance from lawmakers who said the job was not yet done. But what is striking about Barzani’s portrayal of the group is the idea that it is not just surviving but thriving. This cuts against the official line from the White House. It jibes, however, with recent warnings: from the Pentagon’s inspector general, who said in a report last week that Baghdadi’s death has not disrupted ISIS’s command structure or operations; and from the United Nations, which said in a report last month that ISIS still has at least $100 million in its reserves and has begun to reassert itself in Iraq and Syria.