By Doyle McManus
SHAFAQNA (Shia International News Association)
The US and its allies are no longer losing the war against Daesh (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) and in the Middle East, that counts as progress.
In Syria, the besieged Kurdish town of Kobani, nearly given up for lost two weeks ago, has held off Daesh’s guerrillas — thanks to dozens of foreign air strikes and an emergency US airlift of guns and ammunition last week. Next door, the Iraqi army is no longer abandoning its posts around Baghdad and has actually launched some modest offensives on the outskirts of the capital. It has not taken back much territory from Daesh, but at least it is not giving away more.
And on the political front, Iraq’s new government has finally managed to confirm a defence minister (a Sunni) and an interior minister (a Shiite) after a month-long deadlock, a step that should make it possible for Baghdad to begin rebuilding its armed forces and mount a more serious ground offensive. Those developments were enough for some Obama administration officials to throw caution to the wind and declare a measure of victory. “This strategy is succeeding,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said last week. The announcement was understandable in an election season when the White House has not had much good news to celebrate. But is it true?
A more sober assessment came from the commander of US forces in the Middle East, Army General Lloyd J. Austin III. “We are having the desired effects,” he told reporters last week, “but this will take some time.” For a dispassionate judgement, I turned to Douglas A. Ollivant of the New America Foundation, a former Army officer and former White House official who helped plan the successful US “surge” in Iraq in 2006. “It’s a stalemate,” Ollivant said.
Although we do not have Daesh fighters on the run, neither are they continuing to grab new territory. But even that is an improvement from where the US-led coalition forces were in September, when Daesh’s legions were close to invading Baghdad. Getting to the point of stalemate was accomplished through a relatively limited application of US military power: 541 air strikes from August 8 through to October 19, at an average of about seven strikes a day.
Hawks have complained that the Air Force has been too restrained.
“I’m an Army guy, not an air-power advocate, but I don’t think we’ve been using air power to its full effect,” Ollivant said. Military officials disagree, but they have also said they could launch more air strikes — and more effective air strikes — if they had forward air controllers, “spotters,” on the ground with Iraqi troops.
US President Barack Obama, meanwhile, continues to resist the use of US ground forces in combat, fearing the danger of “mission creep”. In August, he rejected a request from Austin to send US Special Operations forces to help Kurdish units retake the Mosul dam. In Syria, the US airlift to Kobani did not violate Obama’s ban on ground troops. And the White House has rebuffed proposals for a Nato-protected “safe zone” for rebels and refugees in northern Syria.
The problem, of course, is that air strikes alone cannot seize territory. For that, you need ground forces, as Obama and his aides acknowledge. They want local forces — the Iraqi army and, eventually, moderate Syrian rebels — to do that work. But the Iraqi army is not ready and the Syrian moderates, as a practical matter, barely exist.
As a result, Obama’s goal to “degrade and ultimately destroy” Daesh is stuck, for now, in phase one: Degrade. And privately, some officials think “destroy” is out of reach. A few weeks ago, the retired Marine general in charge of the overall strategy, John R. Allen, issued a memo asking underlings to use the word “defeat” instead — a slightly lesser goal. And that is mostly in Iraq. The prospects are far drearier in Syria, where the US-backed rebels remain weak and disorganised. Last week, their political leaders tried and failed to unify around a single leader — not for the first time, though.
“Iraq is our main effort and it has to be,” Austin said. Even the US effort to help Syrian Kurds in Kobani was aimed mostly at reducing Daesh in Iraq, he said. The action was launched not as the beginning of a more active US role in Syria’s civil war, but rather as a way to bleed the insurgents in Kobani, diminishing their ability to act elsewhere.
“In the long run,” one official told me, “we still face the same old riddle: Tell me how this ends.” That is a question with a history. It was asked in 2003 by the then major general David H. Petraeus as he led the 101st Airborne Division in the invasion of Iraq.