The Arab world is suffering a sense of vertigo these days. Extremists from the Islamic State, who have seemingly arisen out of nowhere, have burst through the gates of power. Political elites are confused and frightened. They’re angry at the United States (as always). But at the same time, they want the United States to explain a strategy for combating a group that threatens every structure of stability, including borders.
This anxiety has been compounded by President Obama’s slow start in rolling out his plan to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State. It was painful last week to hear Jalal al-Gaood, a tribal leader from the Albu Nimr clan along the Euphrates, tell me how his town was overrun because the United States hadn’t devised a plan to resupply tribal allies.
Since returning home, I’ve heard U.S. officials describe more details of their plans. The strategy has a lot of “ifs” and “maybes,” and it’s definitely a “work in progress,” as one U.S. official frankly admits. Among other drawbacks, it requires patience, in short supply in America and the Middle East; and it’s much clearer about Iraq than Syria. But the campaign plans do provide more clarity and allow for some needed public discussion.
For starters, this is an army at dawn, and U.S. commanders insist on taking little steps before big ones. The United States has posted a string of small successes, with air power backing Iraqi and Kurdish forces that liberated the Mosul and Haditha dams, freed trapped Yazidis on Mount Sinjar and successfully defended Irbil and Amerli.
Big, risky operations such as retaking the city of Mosul are many months away. But the ops tempo increased modestly this week as Iraqi security forces pushed to regain control of the strategic Baiji refinery and Kurdish forces attacked jihadists in Zumar in northern Iraq. Commanders believe that as U.S.-backed forces take the offensive, the extremists will face tough choices: They can fight, risking heavy casualties, retreat, or hunker down. All three slow their momentum.
U.S. commanders know they must act quickly to gain credibility with Sunnis, especially after Albu Nimr and other tribal strongholds in Anbar province fell recently. These areas were sacrificed because U.S. military leaders believed it was unwise to mount ad hoc operations to free small, stranded pockets. U.S. air power could have been used but the risk of collateral damage was judged too high.
The centerpiece of the Sunni outreach is a force of 5,000 “national guard” fighters, drawn from the tribes. Their development is seen as very urgent, and within the next two weeks commanders hope to begin recruiting, paying and training the Sunni fighters. Hundreds of U.S. and foreign trainers are supposed to be on scene by year-end. To help woo the Sunnis, a senior member of the Shiite-led government is supposed to meet 70 tribal leaders this week. U.S. officials think about half these tribes are ready to break with the Islamic State.
U.S. officials would also like to bring Jabr al-Jibouri, a prominent tribal leader, into the government, perhaps as head of the national guard or as a national security adviser. His brother told me last week in Amman that such a move would pull some tribal fighters away from the Islamic State.
Military commanders are always looking for signs of progress, and they claim to see some enemy weaknesses emerging, even as the extremists continue to gain ground: Intelligence reports say there are tensions within the Islamic State, between Iraqis and foreign fighters. In Mosul, these fissures led to their segregation in different buildings. The Islamic State has also been forced to change tactics — seeking shelter in urban areas and avoiding mass movements or overt displays, such as flags or caravans.
When the jihadists stand and fight, as they have done in the northern Syrian town of Kobane, they get pounded. U.S. officials estimate the jihadists have lost 400 fighters in that battle. U.S. airstrikes have also hammered their infrastructure in Iraq and Syria, including oil wells and supply depots.
There is some solid military planning in the U.S. strategy but it also includes some wishful thinking. The most dubious assumption is that Iraqi and Syrian recruits can win this fight against the extremists without U.S. advisers alongside them in battle.