Destroying ISIS may take years, US officials say
WASHINGTON: The Obama administration is preparing to carry out a campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria that may take three years to complete, requiring a sustained effort that could last until after President Obama has left office, according to senior administration officials.
The first phase, an air campaign with nearly 145 air strikes in the past month, is already underway to protect ethnic and religious minorities and American diplomatic, intelligence and military personnel, and their facilities, as well as to begin rolling back ISIS gains in northern and western Iraq.
The next phase, which would begin sometime after Iraq forms a more inclusive government, scheduled this week, is expected to involve an intensified effort to train, advise or equip the Iraqi military, Kurdish fighters and possibly members of Sunni tribes.
The final, toughest and most politically controversial phase of the operation — destroying the terrorist army in its sanctuary inside Syria — might not be completed until the next administration. Indeed, some Pentagon planners envision a military campaign lasting at least 36 months.
Obama will use a speech to the nation on Wednesday to make his case for launching a United States-led offensive against Sunni militants gaining ground in the Middle East, seeking to rally support for a broad military mission while reassuring the public that he is not plunging American forces into another Iraq war.
“What I want people to understand,” Obama said in an interview with NBC’s “Meet the Press” that was broadcast Sunday, “is that over the course of months, we are going to be able to not just blunt the momentum” of the militants. “We are going to systematically degrade their capabilities; we’re going to shrink the territory that they control; and, ultimately, we’re going to defeat them,” he added.
The military campaign Obama is preparing has no obvious precedent. Unlike American counterterrorism operations in Yemen and Pakistan, it is not expected to be limited to drone strikes against militant leaders. Unlike the war in Afghanistan, it will not include the use of ground troops, which Obama has ruled out.
Unlike the Kosovo war that President Bill Clinton and NATO nations waged in 1999, it will not be compressed into an intensive 78-day tactical and strategic air campaign. And unlike during the air campaign that toppled the Libyan leader, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, in 2011, the Obama administration is no longer “leading from behind,” but plans to play the central role in building a coalition to counter ISIS.
“We have the ability to destroy ISIL,” Secretary of State John Kerry said last week at the NATO summit meeting in Wales, using an alternative name for the militant group. “It may take a year, it may take two years, it may take three years. But we’re determined it has to happen.”
Antony J Blinken, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, has suggested that the United States is undertaking a prolonged mission. “It’s going to take time, and it will probably go beyond even this administration to get to the point of defeat,” Blinken said last week on CNN.
Kerry is scheduled to head for the Middle East soon to solidify the anti-ISIS coalition. And Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is traveling to Ankara, Turkey, on Monday to woo another potential ally in the fight against the Sunni militant group.
Although details of how the emerging coalition would counter ISIS remain undecided, several American officials said that they believe the list of allies so far includes Jordan, offering intelligence help, and Saudi Arabia, which has influence with Sunni tribes in Iraq and Syria and which has been funding moderate Syrian rebels.
The United Arab Emirates, officials said, has also indicated a willingness to consider airstrikes in Iraq. Germany has said it would send arms to pesh merga fighters in Kurdistan. And rising concern over foreign fighters returning home from Syria and Iraq may also have spurred Australia, Britain, Denmark and France to join the alliance.
Administration officials acknowledged, however, that getting those same countries to agree to airstrikes in Syria was proving harder.
“Everybody is on board Iraq,” an administration official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the policy is still being developed. “But when it comes to Syria, there’s more concern” about where airstrikes could lead. The official nonetheless expressed confidence that the countries would eventually come around to taking the fight into Syria, in part, he said, because “there’s really no other alternative.”
The talks between Hagel and the Turkish leadership may be crucial in determining whether the United States will be able to count on Ankara on a number of fronts, including closing the Turkish border to foreign fighters who have been using Turkey as a transit point from which to go to Syria and Iraq to join militant organizations and allowing the American military to carry out operations from bases in Turkey.
But Turkish officials have been wary of attracting notice from ISIS, given that the group holds the fate of 49 kidnapped Turkish diplomats in its hands. In June, Sunni militants with ISIS stormed the Turkish Consulate in Mosul, Iraq, kidnapping the consul general and other members of his staff, and their families, including three children.
Obama’s planned speech suggests he may be moving closer to a decision on many remaining questions, including whether and at what point the White House might widen the air campaign to include targets across the border in Syria, possibly to include ISIS leadership and its equipment, supply depots and command centers. The time of the speech on Wednesday has not been announced.
Senior officials have repeatedly ruled out sending ground combat troops, a vow Obama reaffirmed in his appearance on “Meet the Press.”
“This is not going to be an announcement about U.S. ground troops,” he said. “This is not the equivalent of the Iraq war.”
But it is not clear if that declaration would preclude the eventual deployment of small numbers of American Special Operations forces or C.I.A. operatives to call in airstrikes on behalf of Kurdish fighters, Iraqi forces or Sunni tribes, a procedure that makes it much easier to distinguish between ISIS militants, civilians and counter ISIS fighters.
During the recent operation to retake the Mosul Dam, Kurdish soldiers, using a more roundabout procedure, provided the coordinates of ISIS fighters to the joint United States-Kurdish command center in Erbil, which in turn passed them to American aircraft, Masrour Barzani, the head of Kurdish intelligence, said in a recent interview.
The White House is counting on an effort by American, Iraqi and Gulf Arab officials to persuade Sunni tribesman in western Iraq, now aligned with ISIS, to break their ties after chafing under the harsh Shariah law the group has imposed.
Unless the new Iraqi government is substantially more inclusive, American encouragement and support for these groups to turn on ISIS may be far less effective than it was in 2007, when many tribes fought the forerunner of ISIS, al-Qaida in Iraq.
Some Sunni tribal leaders are still bitter at the treatment under former Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, a Shiite.
“Even if they try we will not accept it,” said Sheikh Ali Hatem Suleimani, a tribal leader in Anbar who lives in Erbil. “In the past, we fought against al-Qaida and we cleaned the area of them. But the Americans gave control of Iraq to Maliki, who started to arrest, kill, and exile most of the tribal commanders who led the fight against Al Qaida.”