President Barack Obama’s record on the war with the Islamic State, a.k.a. ISIS, ISIL or (in Arabic) Daesh has been framed by a learning curve and a slippery slope.
At the beginning and the bottom of Mr. Obama’s learning curve was his dismissal, made January 7, 2014 to The New Yorker editor David Remnick of the I.S. forces that had just retaken the Iraqi city of Fallujah: “if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant.”
Compare that to the President’s declaration on March 23, 2016, that defeating the Islamic State is “my top priority.”
Proof that this is not just rhetoric and at the bottom of that slippery slope that leads to the combat zones of Iraq and Syria are places like the village of Tal Esqop, where just days ago, Navy SEAL Charlie Keating became the third American serviceman killed in action in the fight against I.S.
Keating is among a few hundred Special Forces personnel who have been sent on a mission to train, advise and assist local forces like the Kurdish Peshmerga Special Warfare Officer Keating was with when he was killed.
And it looks like those hundreds of Special Forces will be supplemented by a few more thousand American military personnel who will join some 5,000 troops already working to upgrade Iraqi forces ranging from the National Army and the elite Counter Terrorism Service to far less regular Sunni tribal militias being groomed for an upcoming battle for Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, and the Islamic State’s most prized Iraqi property.
Make no mistake about it, every one of those American boots on the ground are in some level of danger, from battlefield snipers like the one who apparently killed SWO Charlie Keating, or from the IS suicide bombers who remain a daily menace in Baghdad.
Thus, with more troops heading for Iraq, and once there, for placement ever-closer to actual combat zones, the Defense Department and the White House seem ready at least to drop their insistence that U.S. forces will not play combat roles. The latest statement says the only thing ruled out for US fighters in Iraq is a full-scale conventional ground offensive, something the other side, the Islamic State is equally happy to rule out.
So what does all of this add up to in assessing the American war on I.S.? Our guest today, Linda Robinson, says, “The current effort by the United States and its coalition partners is insufficient to achieve the lasting defeat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria,” and she adds that will only happen after the U.S. develops local partners capable of seizing and holding territory currently held by I.S.
Linda Robinson is a senior international policy analyst at the RAND Corporation. Her current research centers on the U.S. strategy to counter the Islamic State, gray zone conflicts, building partner capacity, and special operations forces.