In September 2014, a month after the bombing campaign against Islamic State started, President Obama confirmed that the United States did not yet have a strategy. The comment was pounced on by his political opponents. At the end of this week’s G7 meeting in Bavaria he made a similar comment, although he did phrase it in terms of not yet having a “complete strategy”.
Once again the Republicans seized on the remark. One presidential hopeful, former Texas governor Rick Perry, remarked acidly: “If I were commander-in-chief, it would not take nine months to work with our military leaders to develop a complete strategy to destroy ISIS and protect American security interests and values.”
It is a more or less standard retort eighteen months before an election, given that neither Perry nor any other presidential contender has to say much more, but it is still an interesting reflection of the dilemma facing any US political leader. The previous column in this series highlighted a number of indicators showing Islamic State was far from being in retreat, and cited senior US special-forces generals voicing the judgment that a war lasting fifteen years is likely ("Islamic State, the long war", 4 June 2015).
If Rick Perry really was in the White House, and if his consultation with the military included the heads of special forces, then he might discover that at least nine months are needed to decide on a strategy that commands a military consensus, and that the strategy would easily outlast a single term of office. This is because the air war is not working; there is little sign of Iraqi forces being able to contain Islamic State; and it is not at all certain that even a singularly hawkish Republican presidency would go as far as to intend to launch another large-scale war involving tens of thousands of US troops in the heart of the Middle East.
To make matters worse for Obama, and any future contender, there have been further advances by Islamic State in the past week alone, one of them particularly ominous. Within Iraq, Islamic State paramilitaries succeeded in attacking the local-council building in the town of Amiriyat, one of the few centres in Anbar province still held by government troops, and a town the government had put considerable effort into defending (see David D Kirkpatrick & Kareem Fahim, “ISIS shows its strength in attacks in Iraq and Libya”, New York Times, 10 June 2015).
More important, though, is the gain made by a linked group in northern Libya in taking control of a key power-plant near Misrata, to the west of one of its main strongholds, Surt. This seizure of a strategic asset means the group can dictate electricity supplies for significant parts of northern Libya, including the city of Misrata, which is currently held by one of the most powerful clusters of militias in Libya as a whole. Moreover, the support of the Misrata militias - in effect, a branch of Islamic State - is essential to the factions that control Libya's capital Tripoli, further to the west.
Taken together, all this implies that Islamic State is simultaneously increasing its power in Iraq while a close ally extends its ground in Libya. Even after ten months of an air war in Iraq, and nearly four years after western air action led to the collapse of the Gaddafi regime (amid expectation that Libya would become a peaceful state), there is little evidence of a reversal in the jihadists' fortunes.
Western states, which expected that post-Gaddafi Libya would become peaceful, today have no coherent policy in Libya beyond hoping the current United Nations mediation efforts bring some of the groups together. This contrasts with Iraq, where Barack Obama's administration is at least taking some cautious decisions. The main one is the move to add yet more troops, 450, to bring the total deployment to 3,550. In a notable echo of recent history, the new troops are from the United States army’s 82nd airborne division that last deployed to Iraq in 2006.
There are indications that the 82nd's units will be more forward-based than those training Iraqi army elements at four other bases, suggesting that their role will be closer to the frontline. That, though, is something of a contradiction in terms since Islamic State forces tend to permeate communities and even towns and cities, one of the reasons why the air attacks are having so little effect.
What is clear is that the US involvement in Iraq is increasing steadily. That development is very much to the liking of an Islamic State leadership ever seeking to present itself as defending Islam under “crusader attack” as it tries to attract more foreign fighters to its cause.
Perhaps the most surprising development of all is an estimate from the US department of defence officials that there are perhaps 20,000 to 30,000 foreign paramilitaries aiding Islamic State in Iraq. This is far higher than any earlier estimate and indicates just how substantial this war is becoming. Such a development increases the chance that the United States and its coalition partners are now heading once more towards a major ground war in the Middle East, years after they thought it was all over. And this time, perhaps, without them even intending it.