President Barack Obama is facing the slippery-slope problem in Iraq and Syria that he’s sought to avoid, with some advisers concluding that limited airstrikes are insufficient to break Islamic State’s momentum.
As airpower has failed to dislodge the extremists from the Syrian border town of Kobani or halt their offensive in Iraq, Obama’s appeals for strategic patience are being challenged by some U.S. military and intelligence officers and diplomats who say more needs to be done.
Obama has declined to consider sending American forces for ground-combat roles in Iraq, despite recent warnings from Army General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Secretary of State John Kerry and senior intelligence officials that continued reliance on limited airstrikes and training is inadequate to achieve his goal of degrading and destroying Islamic State, according to three officials active in planning and executing the administration’s strategy.
Military analyst Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said the two-month-old air campaign “seems to be doing too little, too slowly” and is so small by the standards of recent conflicts that “it amounts to little more than military tokenism.”
“This has been disguised in part by official reporting that touts the effect of daily sorties in hitting given target areas, makes claims to strategic effects that are never justified or fully explained, and includes occasional figures for minor damage to given weapons systems,” he said in a report on the website of the Washington-based policy center.
Islamic State fighters have made “some substantial gains” in Iraq, retired Marine General John Allen, Obama’s special envoy for the coalition against the group, told reporters yesterday. This week, extremists have captured an Iraqi military base near the city of Hit and are threatening the Ayn al-Asad airbase, which controls the approach to Iraq’s second-largest dam, and Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province.
Obama told alliance military leaders meeting near Washington on Oct. 14 not to judge daily developments in what will be a “long-term” campaign that includes training Iraqi and Syrian fighters, as well as non-military measures to weaken the jihadist group.
“As with any military effort, there will be days of progress and there are going to be periods of setback,” he said of the mission, which the Pentagon has named “Operation Inherent Resolve.”
In Syria, the U.S., joined by several allies, has intensified bombardment in and near Kobani during the past week.
Given the militants’ advances in Iraq, “the intent at this juncture is to take those steps that are necessary -- with the forces that we have available and the airpower that we have at our fingertips” -- to buy time for “the training program for those elements of the Iraqi national security forces that will have to be refurbished and then put back into the field,” Allen said.
Cordesman said it’s “all too clear from Iraq’s recent defeats” that it needs U.S. forward advisers, which means “risking combat losses, but it seems to be essential.”
Obama isn’t alone in his reluctance, though, according to the U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations and classified intelligence assessments.
The president is joined by some political advisers who worry about escalating the military campaign on the eve of congressional elections, and by some military officials who say that the 2007 “surge” of American forces in Iraq failed to stamp out Sunni extremism even with 135,000 troops and hundreds of millions of dollars in payments to Sunni tribes.
Dempsey said yesterday on CNN that it’s possible he will ask for a small number of U.S. troops in Iraq to accompany Iraqi combat units to help identify targets for airstrikes.
Dempsey hasn’t ruled out the possibility of asking Obama for combat forces if circumstances require it, and the general said he recently ordered Army Apache attack helicopters into action to prevent jihadists from moving against Baghdad airport.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said that ground combat must be waged by Iraqi and Syrian forces, not Americans.
The strategy “does require forces on the ground, but they must be local forces,” he said yesterday in a speech to the Association of the U.S. Army in Washington. “It is the only sustainable path to defeating terrorism and extremism.”
The U.S. is proposing that a program to rebuild Iraqi forces be conducted by as many as 1,000 trainers from the U.S., Britain, France, Germany and Australia, according to a report on Foreign Policy’s website that doesn’t identify the official who provided the information.
Events on the ground may not wait for those longer-term measures. Two key targets in Iraq -- the Baghdad Airport and the Haditha Dam on the Euphrates River -- are at risk now, and the loss of Kobani near the border with Turkey would be a major symbolic and tactical victory for Islamic State, said the three American officials.
Even without seizing the airport, militants could use artillery to shut down the facility. One U.S. official said intelligence analysts think Islamic State has captured as many as 50 American-made M198 155-mm howitzers, which have a range of about 14 miles (23 kilometers). The extremists also may have seized some M109 self-propelled howitzers, which have an 11-mile range, as well as some old Soviet-made artillery with a range as great as 17 miles, he said.
“By shelling the airport a few times a day, you’re going to stop commercial air traffic,” Cordesman said in an interview. “It won’t matter if you hit anything.”
From the start, several of the officials said, some U.S. veterans of the campaigns in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere have been skeptical that the Iraqi military and a proposed National Guard can be trained fast enough to stave off strategic defeats that would enhance the extremists’ appeal to potential recruits, aggravate existing social divisions and further undermine the still-incomplete Iraqi government.
The most immediate action being considered, the officials said, is intensifying the air campaign, which they said would be aided if Turkey agrees to U.S. requests to launch combat missions from the NATO airbase at Incirlik and perhaps other Turkish facilities. One official described the recent increase in sorties as minimal, saying the current rate is a fraction of the round-the-clock campaign that’s needed.
The campaign also would be more effective, two of the officials said, if the Army and Air Force deployed to Iraq additional attack aircraft, including Apache helicopters and AC-130 gunships, a move they said wouldn’t violate Obama’s pledge not to put combat boots on the ground even though it would require more maintenance technicians and other personnel.
Another U.S. official, also speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal debates, said Obama appears to have trapped himself by promising more militarily than he’s prepared to deliver, as he did by drawing a “red line” against Syria’s use of chemical weapons.
In this case, said the official, who also participates in the internal policy discussions, other nations the president and Kerry have recruited into the anti-Islamic State coalition are calling the president’s bluff by refusing to commit additional personnel or step up combat activity unless the U.S. does so first.