Sorry Obama, Pentagon Says U.S. Military Cannot Beat ISIL Alone

Source: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

When President Barack Obama told the American public in early September that the threat posed by the Islamic militant group known as ISIL (or ISIS) was worrisome enough that the United States would expand airstrikes from Iraq into Syria, critics of the White House’s strategy warned that bombing alone would not halt the expansion of the Islamic State. Now, one month after U.S. military engagement in the region escalated, Pentagon officials told the president on Wednesday that the problems highlighted by the Department of Defense early in the campaign have begun to be realized.

“Airstrikes alone are not going to do this,” Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby said, according to a press release issued by the Defense Department. “They’re not going to fix this. They’re not going to save the town of Kobani.” As he spoke, battles between ISIL terrorists and Kurdish fighters raged in and around that city, a strategic garrison along the Syrian-Turkish border. “We know that,” Kirby said. “We’ve been saying that over and over again. And yet we continue to get questions of, well, ‘why aren’t you doing more? And how come they aren’t more effective?’”

He answered his own question, noting that without training and equipping indigenous ground forces, the effectiveness of U.S. airpower is limited. “And we don’t have a willing, capable, effective partner on the ground inside Syria right now. It’s just a fact. I can’t change that.”

Despite the airstrikes, which the U.S.-led coalition continued on Thursday, the Islamic State has seized large areas of Kobani; ISIL’s ominous black flat has been lifted above the city. As Rami Abdulrahman — head of The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the war — told Reuters, ISIL now controls more than a third of Kobani. According to estimates from the United Nations, only a few hundred residents remain in the city, as many have taken refuge from the massacre the its defenders will follow if ISIL prevails. U.S. officials believe an Islamic State victory is likely. Meanwhile, the last defenders of the city, who are armed with against as many as 9,000 jihadist with only small weapons, maintain that the airstrikes are a token show of support.

But even with U.S. officials predicting the fall of Kobani, no policy shift will take place. “We’re not expecting any change to our strategy as a result of today’s meeting,” Kirby told reporters on Wednesday afternoon. “This is going to be a long, difficult struggle.” By many analyses, the fight for Kobani is a key test of U.S. military strategy: limited airstrikes with support provided by indigenous troops. But for now, the city is in danger, local troops are proving to be ineffective or nonexistent, and the Pentagon sees Baghdad at risk for a takeover. “There are places where [the Islamic State] continues to make gains in Iraq,” commented Kirby ahead of Obama’s Pentagon briefing. “We talked about it. We talked about Ramadi. We talked about Fallujah, which is still in contention right now. That’s worrisome, because it’s close to Baghdad.”

Turkey — a NATO ally that has refused to join the U.S.-led coalition — has called any expectations that it would conduct a cross-border operation to aid the embattled town unrealistic. A major impediment to Turkish participation is the country’s contentious relationship with its Kurdish population — the ethnic group, long in search of independence, who have been fighting against ISIL in both Iraq and Syria.

To be clear, the Wednesday meeting between Obama and top Pentagon officials was “periodic check-in,” not indication that ISIL’s continued expansion in Syria has become more threatening. But Pentagon officials have long warned that the weak link of Obama’s strategy to defeat ISIL was the need for “willing, capable, effective partner(s) on the ground.” A number of Republican lawmakers have also echoed that concern.

“A F-16 is not a strategy … air strikes alone will not accomplish what we’re trying to accomplish,” noted House Speaker John Boehner after Obama announced his bombing campaign. But the president has made clear that he doesn’t want U.S. troops on the ground, meaning the mission depends on the contribution of ground support from local troops, including the Syrian Opposition Coalition and the Free Syrian Army (FSA). No one — from the president to a selection of congressional lawmakers to political scientists — believes that a simple campaign of airstrikes over Iraq and Syria will stabilize that region of the Middle East.

Already, in “Iraq, Kurdish Peshmerga forces have proved to be the anvil to the hammer of U.S. airstrikes, denying ISIS strategic terrain and recapturing lost territory,” noted in Oubai Shahbandar, a former Pentagon analyst, and Michael Pregent, a former U.S. Army intelligence officer, in an opinion piece published by The Wall Street Journal. “In Syria, airstrikes should enable the FSA and allied tribes to retake the country’s eastern oil fields, which are vital to sustaining and funding ISIS. operations.”

It is important to remember that there is little public support for putting American boots on the ground, a euphemism that obscures the complexities of the issue. In the case of U.S. strategy in Iraq, the question of deploying or not deploying American troops is not black and white. For example, the bombers and the drones that are conducting airstrikes in Iraq and Syria do so with the aid of intelligence gathered by special operations forces. The territory occupied by ISIL is a tightly interwoven network of villages and cities. Now, special operations forces and CIA teams are training and arming local troops in Iraq. But the problem is that the difference between guiding those forces and planning and participating in an attack is understandably small.

Criticism of Obama’s strategy has grown louder over the past few days. “Evidence is mounting that an ‘Iraq first’ approach focused on air strikes isn’t degrading ISIL,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, California Republican, claimed on Wednesday. “From Kobani to Baghdad they are using their Syrian sanctuary to make gains.” The West’s patience has already been tested with each passing day, creating a clearer picture of the atrocities committed by ISIL fighters, especially the beheadings of British and American journalists and aid workers. If the Islamic State takes Kobani, the victory will likely lead to greater violence against the city’s Kurdish defenders, Soner Cagaptay, of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told Reuters. “If Kobani fell, the pictures that would come out of there would be so horrific … the world’s reaction would obviously be sharpened.”

As Kirby’s Wednesday comments made clear, the United States has few options other than stick to airstrikes for now. It will take months before the U.S.-trained Syrian ground force is prepared; according to the Pentagon spokesman, the U.S. military will need to devote up to five months to recruiting and screening members of the Syrian opposition before they enter the U.S. training program in Saudi Arabia. With the contribution of indigenous ground forces limited to a date far in the future, military experts have cautioned that the West must be prepared for occasional setbacks in the fight against ISIL. “We’re limited to what’s doable from the air [in Syria] and have to be accepting that we’re going to have setbacks like this until we can get a proper air-ground operation going,” said retired Lieutenant General James Dubik, who oversaw training of Iraqi forces during the Bush administration, told Reuters.

Progress in Iraq has also seen setbacks, and the Islamic State holds just as many cities as it did two months ago, when the United States’ bombing campaign began.

The plight of Kobani and limited success in Iraq has fueled debates over Obama’s  in Washington’s political circles. Back before the U.S. bombing campaign began, Hillary Clinton — who has yet to announce any intentions of running for president in 2016 — gave a searing indictment of Obama’s foreign policy maneuvers in the Middle East. “The failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad — there were Islamists, there were secularists, there was everything in the middle — the failure to do that left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled,” Clinton said in an early August interview with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg. (For the record, Obama termed the criticism that American should have done more to arm the Syrian opposition — a criticism leveled by Clinton, several members of Obama’s senior national security team, and lawmakers of both parties — “horseshit” during a private meeting, according to an exclusive by The Daily Beast.)

Clinton still maintains that ISIL poses a direct threat to the United States. In a speech before the Economic Club in Chicago this week, she described the Islamic State as the “best-funded, most professional, expansionist jihadist military force that we have ever seen.” She stated that Obama chose the correct course of action by launching a political and military offensive against the militants. But she refrained from suggesting that Congress should take a so-called “up-or-down” vote on the campaign, which the president has said could be long lasting. After all, her vote to invade Iraq in 2003 haunted her 2008 campaign.

Meanwhile, in his recently released memoir, Worthy Fights, Leon Panetta — the Obama administration’s former Secretary of Defense — claimed the president harmed the United States and global security by vacilitating on a number of key issues. He believes Obama’s failure to actively fight for the Status of Forces Agreement that would have allowed U.S. troops to remain in Iraq was a mistake; Panetta believes that American advisers could have helped Iraqi forces stymie the rise of the Islamic State. When Obama failed to enforce the “red line” against the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime in Syria, the president harmed United States credibility, wrote the former cabinet member. These missteps are symptomatic of misguiding style of leadership; Obama too often relies “on the logic of a law professor rather than the passion of a leader,” Panetta concluded.

Follow Meghan on Twitter @MFoley_WSCS

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