The self-proclaimed Islamic State has claimed a major provincial capital in Iraq and taken over another strategically key city in Syria. In response, the Obama administration plans to do—well, not much of anything new.
Four defense officials told The Daily Beast that there’s still strong resistance within the Obama administration to making any serious changes to the current strategy for fighting ISIS—despite mounting skepticism from some in the Pentagon about the current U.S. approach to the war.
Although the Obama administration’s public messaging is that it still wants to “degrade and ultimately defeat” ISIS, in reality, many in the Pentagon view the real objective as just running out the clock.
“I think this is driven by a sense that this not our fight and so we are just going to try to contain it and have influence where we can,” one official who works closely on the military strategy explained to The Daily Beast. “This is a long fight, and it will be up to the next administration to tackle.”
Rather than aiming for a decisive victory, the U.S. approach has devolved into simply maintaining a low boil in perpetuity.
They said they realize that the political strategy supersedes the military one; there is no public appetite for ground troops in Iraq; there is frustration about corruption within the Iraqi government; and there is a lack of a clear alternative approach.
“It’s a political response,” one official explained. “They are doing ‘something’ to inoculate themselves from substantial criticism.”
Some are more blunt, saying no one wants to invest too much time or resources in crafting an alternative.
“Who wants a soldier to come home dead or without a leg or captured by ISIS for forces that retreat?” a second defense official asked.
To be sure, the Pentagon brass has yet to offer alternative strategies to fighting ISIS. Most recently, the U.S.-led coalition did not even ramp up its airstrikes after ISIS claimed the Sunni-dominated Iraqi city of Ramadi on May 18. Since then, the coalition has conducted an average of three strikes a day, targeting vehicles and fighting positions. U.S. officials insist they strike whenever they get good intelligence on ISIS positions.
With no change in airstrikes and a ground force that has retreated, ISIS has successfully—and without any major impediments—built berms, receiving and building other defenses against a promised counterattack by Iraqi security forces.
Even the mildest adjustments are being met with resigned silence, four defense officials told The Daily Beast. En route to Singapore on Wednesday, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter told reporters that he had convened a meeting with “his team” about Iraqi and said the military was examining how “to increase the effectiveness of the campaign.”
“I can’t describe to you what the possibilities are because folks are looking at them right now,” Carter added.
But rather than adjust the strategy, the U.S. military is considering small tactical changes—in how quickly it conducts airstrikes after the Iraqis request them and how to provide Iraqi ground forces weapons and equipment quicker. Among the ideas Carter proposed was speeding up the training of Sunni tribesmen. Army Colonel Steven Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, emphasized to reporters Thursday the U.S. is looking only to “fine-tune” its tactics, not overhaul its strategy.
The secretary noted the military is responsible for two of the nine lines of effort the U.S. is using toward Iraq, which include financial and political pressure, but there was no evidence Thursday that those lines were being reconsidered, either.
But neither a lack of airpower nor weapons appeared to lead to Ramadi’s fall. While the Iraqis feared that a sandstorm would limit coalition airstrikes, U.S. officials said that was not the case. And the Iraqi army vastly outnumbered ISIS forces, and there is no evidence its soldiers suffered a major weapons shortage.
Rather it appears ISIS had fighters hidden in the city who built scores of car bombs—some the size of the bomb used in the Oklahoma City bombing attack—and a strike plan to follow that flustered Iraq Special Forces, or Golden Brigades, who retreated, followed by brigade forces.
Critics of officials at U.S. Central Command, which is in charge of the U.S. military approach toward the Middle East, note that military leaders have yet to publicly propose a strategy that does not involve a major ground force presence. That’s something the White House simply won’t accept.
At a breakfast with reporters Thursday, General Raymond T. Odierno, the chief of staff of the Army and a former top commander in Iraq, said he was “adamant” about not sending U.S. ground forces back to Iraq.
“It always comes back to the government of Iraq,” Odierno said.
And while U.S. officials have said they are committed to a united Iraq, privately two officials said that many anticipate what they described as “the Balkanization of Iraq” along sectarian and ethnic lines.
The U.S. military’s initial response to Ramadi was to blame the Iraqi military for failing to take on the outnumbered ISIS forces. Both Carter and Army General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the Iraqis retreated. In an interview with CNN, Carter said the Iraqi army lacked “the will to fight” for its country.
When the U.S.-led air campaign began nearly a year ago, it, by most accounts, achieved its initial goal of stopping ISIS’s momentum, which was ascending with the capture of the Iraqi city of Mosul. There were fears then that the group could move on to Baghdad.
But since then, ISIS has adjusted while the U.S. strategy has not, the defense officials said. And an air campaign that once could contain ISIS no longer can as the group has developed the skills to create a military plan against an army that outnumbers it by 10 to 1, as in Ramadi, according to U.S. military estimates.
U.S. officials often note they have destroyed 6,300 targets since the strikes began. But critics pointed out that statistics are not always an indicator of a working strategy.
“Every agency is briefing that they are having effect,” the first official explained. “But it is activity, not effect.”
Senator Rand Paul, who is running for the Republican nomination for president, has been a frequent and enthusiastic critic of the Obama administration’s foreign policy and of U.S. military intervention in the Middle East in general. On Thursday, his senior adviser, Doug Stafford, told The Daily Beast, “Senator Paul called months ago for a declaration of war against ISIS.” That declaration, unveiled in November, would have allowed for boots on the ground. Stafford said Paul called “for arming the Kurds” and “for insisting on boots on the ground from neighboring countries.” (The declaration actually specified limited use of American troops on the ground in specific circumstances.)
Stafford added, “This shouldn’t be a political issue or one that is mired in bad strategy from the Obama administration, and it shouldn’t be left for the next president.”
—with additional reporting by Olivia Nuzzi