The Cable

How’s the Fight Against the Islamic State Going? Depends Which Official You Ask

Secretary of State John Kerry put a positive spin on the status of the U.S. fight against the Islamic State. DNI James Clapper was far less optimistic.


Members of the Obama administration were on Capitol Hill this week to push for a new authorization to use military force against the Islamic State, but hours of confusing and often conflicting testimony about the dangers posed by the group and the status of the U.S.-led campaign wound up muddying the waters and making it even more difficult for the White House to win over skeptical lawmakers.

On one side was Secretary of State John Kerry, who told lawmakers the fight was going well. On the other was Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who painted a much darker picture. Stuck in the middle was retired Marine Gen. John Allen, Obama’s special envoy for the global coalition to fight the Islamic State, who said the United States was having some success but that U.S. troops could be battling the group for years to come.

On Wednesday, Kerry told the House Committee on Foreign Affairs that the Obama administration’s campaign against the group meant that the United States — and the world as a whole — was safer, despite the Islamic State’s ongoing gains across the Middle East. “Despite the visible killings that you see and how horrific they are, we are actually living in a period of less daily threat to Americans and to people in the world than normally,” he said.

Just hours later, law enforcement authorities announced that they’d arrested three terrorism suspects who’d been conspiring to travel to Syria to fight for the Islamic State and conduct attacks here at home, including a potential attempt on President Barack Obama’s life.

On Thursday, perhaps mindful of the arrests, Clapper broke with Kerry and gave a very different assessment to the Senate Armed Services Committee.

“When the final accounting is done, 2014 will have been the most lethal year for global terrorism in the 45 years such data has been compiled,” he said.

Clapper’s comments were echoed by the FBI’s assistant director for counterterrorism, Michael Steinbach, who told a House subcommittee Thursday that the homegrown threat from the terror organization is increasing. “We estimate upwards of 150 Americans have traveled or attempted to travel to Syria to join extremist groups,” he said. “It is this blending of homegrown violent extremism with the foreign fighter ideology that is today’s latest adaptation of the threat.”

Allen, Obama’s envoy to the coalition, seemed to straddle these conflicting positions. The retired general was adamant that U.S. efforts to defeat the group were working. But when pressed by Democrats to give a firm position on how long an “enduring” ground operation by U.S. troops would be, he demurred.

“Enduring might only be two weeks. But enduring might be two years,” Allen told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Wednesday.

The mixed messages have only served to cloud the congressional debate over how broad the president’s war authorization should be. Republicans want to place few restraints on where and how long American troops could pursue elements of the Islamic State. Democrats, fearing an open-ended conflict, want strict limits on the length of the war authorization, as well as on how and when U.S. ground troops could be deployed. Both sides seem fairly entrenched in their positions. If their reactions to this week’s conflicting testimony are any indication, that won’t be changing anytime soon.

Photo Credit: Brendan Smialowski

David Francis was a senior reporter for Foreign Policy, where he covered international finance. @davidcfrancis

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