The United States and its allies are no longer losing the war against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, 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 Islamic State’s guerrillas thanks to dozens of foreign airstrikes and an emergency U.S. airlift of guns and ammunition last weekend.
Next door, the Iraqi army is no longer abandoning its posts around Baghdad and has actually launched some modest offensive actions on the outskirts of the capital. It hasn’t taken back much territory from Islamic State, but at least it’s not giving away more.
And on the political front, Iraq’s new government has finally managed to confirm a defense minister (Sunni Muslim) and interior minister (Shiite Muslim) after a monthlong 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 winds 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 hasn’t had much good news to celebrate. But is it true?
A more sober assessment came from the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, Army Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III. “We are having the desired effects,” he told reporters last week, “but this will take some time.”
For a dispassionate judgment, 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 U.S. “surge” in Iraq in 2006.
“It’s a stalemate,” Ollivant said.
Although we don’t have Islamic State fighters on the run, neither are they continuing to grab new territory. But even that’s an improvement from where we were in September, when Islamic State’s legions were close to invading Baghdad.
Getting to the point of stalemate was accomplished through a relatively limited application of U.S. military power: 541 airstrikes from Aug. 8 through Oct. 19, 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 airstrikes — and more effective airstrikes — if they had forward air controllers, “spotters,” on the ground with Iraqi troops.
Obama continues to resist the use of U.S. ground forces in combat, fearing the danger of “mission creep.” In August, he rejected a request from Austin to send U.S. special operations forces to help Kurdish units retake the Mosul dam.
In Syria, the U.S. airlift to Kobani didn’t 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 airstrikes alone can’t 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 isn’t ready, and the Syrian moderates, as a practical matter, barely exist.
As a result, Obama’s goal to “degrade and ultimately destroy” Islamic State 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’s mostly in Iraq. The prospects are far drearier in Syria, where the U.S.-backed rebels remain weak and disorganized. Last week, their political leaders tried and failed to unify around a single leader — not for the first time.
“Iraq is our main effort, and it has to be,” Austin said. Even the U.S. effort to help Syrian Kurds in Kobani was aimed mostly at reducing Islamic State pressure on Iraq, he said. The action was launched not as the beginning of a more active U.S. 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’s a question with a history. It was asked in 2003 by then-Maj. Gen. David H. Petraeus as he led the 101st Airborne Division in the invasion of Iraq.