President Barack Obama claimed “important progress” in Iraq this week, as U.S. airstrikes helped halt the advance of Islamic State fighters and regain control of the country’s largest dam.
Now comes the hard part.
The beheading of American journalist James Foley, shown in a video released on the Internet two days ago, underscored the shifting tactics of an Islamic extremist group that’s part army and part terrorist organization.
After a march through northern Iraq that captured a large swath of territory, Islamic State now has fighters entrenched in several Iraqi cities, where airstrikes would risk causing civilian casualties. Although the group has threatened to kill a second American it’s holding hostage, the U.S. military’s Central Command announced 14 new air attacks yesterday.
“It gets much more difficult from this point forward,” Peter Mansoor, a retired Army colonel and former adviser in Iraq to General David Petraeus, said in an interview. “It’s more difficult to eject an armed force from a piece of ground than to merely stop an advance.”
While U.S. airpower helped Kurdish and Iraqi forces recapture the Mosul Dam, Islamic State fighters still have control of Mosul, northern Iraq’s largest city, and other Sunni Muslim cities such as Fallujah and Tikrit.
The U.S. “faces very different challenges the moment it has to use airpower in populated areas where the Islamic State can shelter behind the population,” Anthony Cordesman, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said in an e-mailed statement.
The graphic video of the beheading of freelance journalist Foley may increase the pressure on Obama to take more aggressive action against Islamic State, even as his options become more complicated, said John Nagl, a former Army commander in Iraq and a board member of the Center for a New American Security in Washington.
“The United States of America will continue to do what we must do to protect our people,” Obama said yesterday in reaction to the beheading. “We will be vigilant and we will be relentless.”
What more he would do -- and when -- went unaddressed.
The Obama administration said yesterday that U.S. forces had made a failed attempt to rescue Foley and other Americans held hostage by Islamic State in Syria.
In Congress, where some lawmakers have pushed for greater military involvement for months, pressure to do more may build after the beheading and the threat of a second.
Representative Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican and former vice presidential nominee, said yesterday that he would support more aggressive American bombing, more support for Iraq’s government and military and increased assistance to moderate Syrian groups seeking to oust President Bashar al-Assad.
“I do believe that probably more of a robust air campaign is called for,” Ryan said in an interview on Bloomberg Television with Mark Halperin and John Heilemann.
Politically, Obama has boxed himself into a corner, vowing to maintain a “limited” military offensive while calling Islamic State a major threat to the region and ultimately the world, said Douglas Ollivant, a former Iraq director on the National Security Council for the Obama and George W. Bush administrations.
“Obama was elected to get us out of Iraq and make sure there were not terrorist safe havens,” Ollivant said. “Now we’ve got a terrorist safe haven in Iraq, so what’s the guy supposed to do?”
The American electorate is similarly conflicted. While 54 percent of Americans say they approve of airstrikes in Iraq, 51 percent say they’re worried the U.S. will become too involved, according to a Pew Research Center poll. The survey of 1,000 adults was conducted August 14 to 17 -- before Foley’s beheading was disclosed -- and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.6 percentage points.
In authorizing airstrikes, Obama limited the mission to protecting U.S. personnel and facilities in Iraq and averting humanitarian crises. Restoring Iraqi control of the Mosul Dam was necessary, he said, because a breach of the dam could have flooded towns all the way down the Tigris River to Baghdad, where the U.S. Embassy is located.
Obama said on Aug. 18 that the operation demonstrated “that Iraqi and Kurdish forces are capable of working together.” That cooperation would be hard to sustain beyond the areas in northern Iraq that the Kurds claim as their territory.
Obama has held out the possibility of expanded U.S. involvement if Iraq forms a new and more inclusive government under its prime minister-designate, Haidar al-Abadi.
“If we have effective partners on the ground, mission creep is much less likely,” Obama said.
Ollivant, now a senior national security fellow at the New America Foundation, a Washington policy research group, said Obama is in a “holding pattern” until a new Iraqi government takes shape.
“The administration is willing to keep the problem from getting any worse but doesn’t want to fully engage until they get an Iraqi government they can work with,” Ollivant said in an interview. Once a new government emerges, “we may well see a new speech” from Obama, he said.
In seeking a more inclusive government, the U.S. also wants to enlist the support of Iraq’s Arab neighbors and its Sunni tribes, some of whom have allied themselves with the Islamic State after being alienated by the Shiite-dominated government of departing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
‘Everything Is Possible’
Yet recreating the Sunni Awakening -- the 2006 U.S. campaign to rally Iraqi tribes against the terrorist group’s predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq -- would take months even if a new and inclusive Iraqi government is formed, and would require more U.S. military advisers on the ground, said Nagl, now headmaster of the Haverford School near Philadelphia.
As the battle continues, the extremists have shown they’re capable of adapting their tactics to different environments.
“We have former army officers who are leading the battle, and they are experts,” said Abu Abid al-Na’aimy, a spokesman for Sunni tribes allied with Islamic State in Salaheddin province. “Everything is possible as tactics. We try to avoid the airstrikes as much as possible.”
Avoiding airstrikes is easier in neighboring Syria, where Islamic State has a relative safe haven in territory it rules near the Iraq border. The U.S. so far has shunned any direct military involvement in the Syrian civil war, where fighting the group could help Assad, whom the U.S. wants to oust.
“I don’t know who we want to win in Syria,” said Nagl. While airstrikes in Syria eventually may be necessary, “there are no good options there,” he said.
Now, however, two U.S. intelligence officials said, the president could invoke Foley’s murder, which they said appears to have occurred in Syria, as well as his statement about the need to protect Americans, to justify expanding the air campaign to Islamic State camps in eastern Syria.
Mansoor, now a military historian at the Ohio State University in Columbus, said a limited U.S. role can’t defeat Islamic State. The U.S. ultimately may need 10,000 to 15,000 troops and advisers on the ground in Iraq, with heavier airstrikes that stretch into Syria to eliminate a safe haven.
If Obama, who has said he won’t put combat troops on the ground, isn’t willing to go that far, Mansoor said, “then he’s going to pass on this problem to his successor in office.”
While agreeing that the U.S. now must step up its campaign, the intelligence officials yesterday warned that Foley’s beheading and the threat to murder Steven Sotloff, the second kidnapped American, may be an attempt by the extremists to draw America and its allies deeper into the conflict.
Defining the War
That may seem counterintuitive, the officials said, but the militant group is seeking to define the war as one between believers and their historic crusader and Jewish enemies. Obama, they said, is wise to emphasize rallying the Kurds, Iraq, the Gulf Arab states and Iraq’s Sunni tribes to take the lead in fighting the extremists. The intelligence officials commented on the condition of anonymity because they aren’t authorized to speak to the media.
More overt U.S. and European intervention in Iraq and Syria, the two officials said, would only feed a longtime narrative of foreign oppression and assist the extremists’ ability to attract new recruits in Europe and throughout the Sunni world, from Morocco to Southeast Asia.
In the video of the beheading, titled “A Message to America,” the militants played on that theme. A man hooded in black said “a large number of Muslims worldwide” have “accepted the caliphate as their leadership. So any attempts by you, Obama, to deny the Muslims their rights of living in safety under the Islamic caliphate will result in the bloodshed of your people.”