Islamic State Isn't Winning

The Kurdish Peshmerga, holding their own.

As so often when it comes to the use of U.S. military power, Senator John McCain has clarified one side of the argument: "They're winning and we're not," he said over the weekend of Islamic State's effort to build a caliphate in Iraq and Syria.

It certainly looks that way at the moment. In Iraq, Islamic State has taken over 80 percent of Anbar province and is closing on Baghdad. The situation is grave enough that Anbar's provincial council appealed for direct U.S. intervention on the ground. In Syria, Islamic State fighters have moved into the city of Kobani, where the vastly outgunned and outnumbered Kurdish defenders appear doomed.

Yet two months into a campaign that was always going to take one or more years, it is too soon to declare failure. Even if President Barack Obama's strategy is achieving less than anyone would hope, honest debate over its success needs to take into account what might have happened -- or might still happen -- without the coalition airstrikes: The answer is genocide, further sexual slavery, long-term regional instability, and a free zone for the training and organization of jihadi terrorists.

True, the Iraqi army has been even more disappointing as a fighting force than expected. And Turkey's reluctance to join the coalition against Islamic State has proved a significant obstacle. Even so, airstrikes have prevented the worst from happening, as efforts are made to improve the support on the ground.

Indeed, the true lesson of Kobani is that Islamic State is hardly a superhuman army, as it is sometimes portrayed. Outnumbered, using Kalashnikovs against tanks and cut off from resupply, the Kurdish defenders of the city have held on for weeks -- aided, of course, by belated airstrikes. If Turkey would open its border to supplies and reinforcement, the Kurds could push Islamic State back, as they did earlier this year when the attackers hadn't yet acquired U.S. armor from Iraq.

Similarly, in northern Iraq, the Kurdish Peshmerga have held their own and even taken some ground, here again without tanks or heavy artillery. Coalition pledges of arms have so far been only weakly followed through. Over the weekend, Turkey finally agreed to do more to help the coalition in Iraq, although just how much remains unclear.

The U.S. strategy could be better handled. The coalition should certainly be more flexible and responsive than it has been: The recent use of Apache helicopters to drive Islamic State away from Baghdad's airport is an example of the higher-risk deployments U.S. commanders have to be able to make. More should have been done by now, too, to arm and aid the Kurds in Iraq and Syria, who are by far the most effective and determined fighters on the ground. The U.S. will need to take a greater risk, as McCain suggests, in inserting special forces spotters and trainers into hot spots such as Kobani.

Even then, this will be a long fight, which Islamic State will no doubt at times seem to dominate. And in a situation this complex, it will always be easy to play armchair general. But the underlying U.S. strategy -- to help the Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds of Iraq, Syria and the wider Middle East unite in their fight against Islamic State -- remains the best available option and should be given time to make progress.

--Editors: Marc Champion, Mary Duenwald.

To contact the editor on this story:
David Shipley at