Is the U.S. Ready for an Endless War Against the Islamic State?
Top generals predict the fight against ISIS will last more than a decade. It’s not a message the White House or Congress wants to hear.
Looking out over rows of young American soldiers sitting in a dusty hall in Baghdad, the U.S. military’s top-ranking officer had a few questions for the troops.
Had they deployed to Iraq before, Gen. Martin Dempsey asked.
Out of about 200 soldiers in the hall, three-quarters raised their hands.
“How many of you think you’ll serve a tour in Iraq again?”
They all put up their hands.
“I think you may be right about that,” Dempsey said. “We’re going to be at this for a while.”
The exchange, which came in July during what is likely to be Dempsey’s final visit to Iraq before he steps down in October, captured what top Pentagon brass view as a “generational conflict” against the Islamic State. Despite optimistic assessments from the White House, the generals believe the war will extend far into the future, long after President Barack Obama leaves office.
In an interview with Foreign Policy in July, shortly before stepping down as vice chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Sandy Winnefeld likened the campaign against the Islamic State to the Cold War.
“I do think it’s going to be a generational struggle,” Winnefeld said.
The Army’s outgoing chief of staff, Gen. Ray Odierno, meanwhile, told reporters that “in my mind, ISIS is a 10- to 20-year problem; it’s not a two years problem.”
But White House officials, and most members of Congress, are reluctant to speak publicly about how long the campaign may last, much to the frustration of military commanders. For members of both political parties, acknowledging that the war could drag on for another 10 to 20 years is politically risky, if not poisonous, and would require confronting difficult decisions about ordering troops into combat, budgets, and strategy.
Instead, the White House has vaguely spoken of a “long-term” effort, without specifically addressing the generals’ expectations of a potentially decade-long war. But officials have acknowledged that the fight will continue after the end of Obama’s presidential term in 2017, leaving his successor with tough choices about whether, and how, to expand the flagging campaign.
While the administration has shied away from talking about precisely how long the war may last, some Republican lawmakers, including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), and defense analysts have accused the White House of offering an overly positive account of the faltering campaign.
Now the administration faces explosive allegations that the military may have sought to water down intelligence reports to convey a more optimistic portrayal of the war.
The Defense Department’s inspector general has launched an investigation into the allegations after an analyst with the Defense Intelligence Agency alleged that assessments had been revised improperly by U.S. Central Command, according to the New York Times.
The allegations raise questions about the possible politicization of the air campaign and carry echoes of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, as officials under then-President George W. Bush were later accused of distorting intelligence reports about suspected stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction to bolster the rationale for military action.
The Senate Intelligence Committee “is aware of the allegations that intelligence assessments may have been improperly used or revised,” a staffer for Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), chairman of the committee, told Foreign Policy on Thursday.
But as the case involves an alleged whistleblower, congressional aides said they could not discuss any aspect of the investigation or whether lawmakers would launch their own separate probe.
Obama has long condemned how intelligence was distorted in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. And in his Aug. 5 speech defending the recently negotiated nuclear agreement with Iran, Obama said the ill-fated U.S. war in Iraq had been the product of “a mindset that exaggerated threats beyond what the intelligence supported.”
After entering office, Obama vowed to carry out a campaign promise to bring the war in Iraq to “a responsible end” by withdrawing U.S. troops in 2011.
The war, however, did not end on his schedule. Obama has had to send 3,400 troops back to Iraq to help local forces battle the Islamic State, a virulent incarnation of the extremist threat that bedeviled the nearly nine-year U.S. occupation. A U.S.-led air campaign has carried out more than 6,400 strikes against Islamic State targets.
Taken together, that means Obama will leave office with no prospect of an end to the American role in the conflict, which has cost more than $3.7 billion after just one year and has undercut the Pentagon’s plans to “reset” the force after years of grinding counterinsurgency warfare.
While administration officials have been reluctant to offer more specific forecasts about the campaign’s duration, Odierno told reporters in July that the Islamic State will be “a long-term problem” over the next decade or more, though he cautioned that he wasn’t sure about how serious a threat it would be in the years ahead.
Odierno was voicing a widely held view among American commanders, who often privately complain about what they see as a lack of coherent strategic planning from the White House or Congress.
“This is not a two- to three-year task. We’re talking a decade-long effort,” a senior military officer said.
A senior administration official declined to say whether the White House agreed with Odierno’s forecast, saying, “It’s impossible to give any precise answer beyond a long-term schedule.”
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, added: “This administration believes the effort should last as long as it takes to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL. There are more than a few variables involved in that.”
There are few signs that the current campaign has turned the tide against the Islamic State in any meaningful way, reinforcing the sense of a long struggle ahead. U.S. officials have touted the success that Iraqi and Kurdish forces, backed by American air power, have had in retaking Tikrit and in recapturing territory in northern Syria, while blunting Islamic State offensives around Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq. But the Islamic State still holds broad swaths of Iraq and Syria, including the major Iraqi cities of Mosul and Ramadi, and American intelligence officials estimate that the group has been able to replenish its ranks of fighters and replace those killed by Washington and its allies.
Despite the marked lack of progress, there are no heated policy debates inside the White House now about how to conduct the war against the Islamic State, administration officials and military officers said.
And there is no indication that the White House is planning to revisit its strategy, despite the disappointing results on the ground.
Dempsey and other top military leaders — scarred by the disastrous experience that followed the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 — are not advocating a radical departure from the current approach, as they do not see a viable alternative without risking another quagmire on the ground.
Administration officials insist that the top generals are not pushing to send in a large force of ground troops or to have special operations commandos embedded with Iraqi troops in combat.
“Our military is not pressing for this,” said a senior administration official familiar with policy discussions, adding that commanders mostly support the current approach.
Most Republican presidential candidates, who castigate Obama for his handling of the Islamic State and promise to take a tougher approach, are also not pressing for the deployment of U.S. combat forces.
Some of them have said they might send special operations forces to accompany Iraqi troops into battle, but the Republicans have offered few details about precisely what they would be willing to do differently and have sidestepped the question of how many years the United States may have to wage war against the Islamic State.
Only one candidate, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), has explicitly called for a major ground force, urging the deployment of at least 10,000 U.S. troops to Iraq and more to Syria.
Graham opposes any limits on U.S. military action against the Islamic State, and his spokesman, Kevin Bishop, said the senator would support “whatever it takes for as long as it takes.”
Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia has argued for a more honest public debate about the open-ended war, but he blames the Republican-led Congress for failing to hold a vote to authorize the use of military force in Iraq and Syria, his office said.
“In my opinion, this is less about candor on the part of the administration and much more about twelve months of congressional abdication of its most solemn constitutional responsibility — whether or not to send our service members into harm’s way,” Kaine said in an email.
Gen. Joseph Dunford, who is due to take over from Dempsey as chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff in October, told lawmakers in July he agreed that a congressional vote to authorize force against the Islamic State would send a signal of unity to allies and adversaries while offering reassurance to troops in the field.
But Congress has opted against a vote that might entail a full-fledged debate on the war and the resources it will require. And the White House has made clear it will stay the course in its military campaign, with no major policy review in the works.
The administration, however, may be open to a more public discussion of the campaign. A senior administration official indicated that the White House may attempt to engage in a broader public discussion of the war later this year, after it is able to shift its focus from the upcoming congressional vote in September on the Iran nuclear agreement.
“Once we get through the Iran nuclear deal, it’s probably time to have a discussion about the broader Middle East,” the official said.
Photo credit: John Moore/Getty Images
Correction, Aug. 28, 2015: Islamic State militants still control the Iraqi city of Fallujah. An earlier version of this article mistakenly stated that Iraqi forces had recaptured the city.