5 Questions Obama Should Have Been Asked About the Islamic State Fight — but Wasn’t
President Barack Obama went over to the Pentagon to get answers. But lots of questions remain over the fight with the Islamic State.
President Barack Obama made a rare trip to the Pentagon to huddle with Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and top brass about the war against the Islamic State. Afterward, he made an even rarer appearance in the Pentagon’s press briefing room, where he read a lengthy and rambling statement that jumped from the air campaign in Syria to the difficulty of stopping lone-wolf attacks in the United States to the need to confirm one of his nominees for a Treasury Department position.
Obama wasn’t scheduled to take questions, but just as he was about to wave goodbye, the U.S. president stepped from the podium and said, “You know, I will take a question. Go ahead.”
He ended up taking two. Fortunately for Obama, they were a pair of relative softballs: a budget question that allowed him to reiterate his support for American troops and their families and a vaguely worded question about potential future U.S. troop deployments to Iraq that gave him the chance to insist he is doing all he can to protect the United States without definitively saying yes or no to the question.
For the most part, Obama hewed to his standard talking points about the Islamic State fight. The war, he said, will be long, difficult, and dependent on America’s allies inside and outside Iraq doing the hard work of battling the group on the ground and gradually retaking lost territory. U.S. warplanes have killed “thousands” of fighters and have driven the militants back at places like Tikrit and the Mosul dam. He also pointed out that the jihadis have lost “more than a quarter” of the ground they had originally seized in Iraq when their push into Anbar province and northern Iraq kicked off in 2014.
Obama did not address why the United States and its Iraqi partners were unable to prevent the key city of Ramadi from falling to militants in May, the Islamic State’s mounting pressure on American-backed moderate rebels near Aleppo, the role of Iranian-backed militias in Iraq, and the failure of the Baghdad government to recruit enough troops for the Iraqi Army.
Here are a few more questions that weren’t asked, but should have been:
Mr. President, you said the United States is “intensifying” its efforts against Islamic State targets in Syria. Why are the jihadi strongholds in eastern Syria not coming under heavy, daily bombardment from American warplanes?
After months of airstrikes in the ones and twos against the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa, there was a sharp uptick in bombing runs last weekend in an effort to cut supply lines to the group’s leadership. But after launching 16 strikes around the city on July 4, the coalition has gone back to launching just a handful of bombing runs since. Highlighting what can happen when there isn’t coalition air power nearby, Islamic State fighters overran the Kurdish-held town of Ain Issa near Raqqa on Monday. They had been pushed out by the Kurds — supported by U.S. air power — only two weeks ago.
Why not allow U.S. trainers to accompany Iraqi forces into combat and help call in airstrikes against the Islamic State?
The Obama administration has refused to permit the American military advisors working to rebuild the shattered Iraqi military to actually go out on combat missions with the forces they’re training, ignoring the strong advice of many inside and outside the Pentagon. The White House has also declined to allow elite special operations forces to deploy closer to the front lines to help pinpoint targets for U.S. and coalition aircraft bombing runs. Without them, coalition aircraft have had to rely on drones and unreliable local allies. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, has hinted that he is willing to listen to the argument for U.S. troops taking a more active role in participating in operations to target jihadi fighters on the battlefield, but nothing has come of it.
You mentioned that the Islamic State has spread to North Africa, Egypt, and elsewhere. Are you ready to expand the military campaign to Libya or the Sinai Peninsula?
Fighters affiliated with the Islamic State duked it out with Egyptian security forces last week, leaving more than 100 dead, and lobbed rockets into southern Israel. Islamic State affiliates in Libya have also been fighting al Qaeda-linked militias and other local groups. The jihadis group has become enough of a threat in Libya that Egypt and the United Arab Emirates launched a series of bombing runs against it, without the blessing of Washington. Key allies of America believe the group is gaining strength in more than a dozen countries, and they want the United States to do more to beat it back. The White House has to date declined to get involved in battling the group anyplace in Iraq or Syria, but it could soon be forced to change course.
If the Iraqi government is not up to the task, why doesn’t the United States start directly arming Kurdish and Sunni fighters?
Two entire divisions of the Iraqi Army broke in 2014 when the Islamic State rolled into the northern city of Mosul; the divisions left behind reams of American-provided weapons and armored vehicles as they fled. And a superior force collapsed this May when a much smaller group of jihadi fighters assaulted Ramadi. Obama has said that where the United States has had a credible partner on the ground, the fight against the Islamic State has gone relatively well. The problem is that the Iraqi military has been far from a credible partner.
The 3,500 U.S. troops in Iraq are currently training only about 2,600 Iraqi soldiers. Pentagon officials have even admitted that some American trainers have sat idle for weeks, waiting for more Iraqis to show up. Kurdish leaders in the north, ever distrustful of Baghdad, have pleaded for Washington to send arms directly to their fighters on the front lines, but the White House insists that all arms shipments be routed through the central government. Critics of Obama’s policy say that Iraq is splintering and that the U.S. strategy has to reflect that harsh reality.
You cited the recapture of the Mosul dam nearly a year ago and say that there will be setbacks as well as progress in the months and years ahead. Is there any time frame for when you see Iraqi security forces beginning to retake Iraqi cities like Mosul, Fallujah, and Ramadi?
Despite some tough talk from U.S. military commanders last winter about Iraqi forces taking back Mosul by this spring, a planned offensive there appears to have been postponed indefinitely. Since the recapture of Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit in April, Iraqi forces have made no moves to take back Ramadi or any other major population centers. U.S. Defense Department officials have talked for months about Iraqi forces taking part in “shaping” operations in the north and in pockets around Anbar to prepare the ground for future assaults on urban centers, but they now refuse to put a timeline on a future assault. There has also been a seesaw fight for the oil refinery at Baiji, where Iraqi forces now seemingly in control of most of the facility have yet to fully flush out the Islamic State fighters there.
Photo credit: Pool/Getty Images
Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary