The Washington Post reports: After months of unexpectedly swift advances, the U.S.-led war against the Islamic State is running into hurdles on and off the battlefield that call into question whether the pace of recent gains can be sustained.
Chaos in Baghdad, the fraying of the cease-fire in Syria and political turmoil in Turkey are among some of the potential obstacles that have emerged in recent weeks to complicate the prospects for progress. Others include small setbacks for U.S.-allied forces on front lines in northern Iraq and Syria, which have come as a reminder that a strategy heavily reliant on local armed groups of varying proficiency who are often at odds with one another won’t always work.
When President Obama first ordered U.S. warplanes into action against the extremists sweeping through Iraq and Syria in 2014, U.S. officials put a three- to five-year timeline on a battle they predicted would be hard. After a rocky start, officials say they are gratified by the progress made, especially over the past six months.
Since the recapture of the northern Iraqi town of Baiji last October, Islamic State defenses have crumbled rapidly across a wide arc of territory. In Syria, the important hub of Shadadi was recaptured with little resistance in February, while in Iraq, Sinjar, Ramadi, Hit and, most recently, the town of Bashir have fallen in quick succession, lending hope that the militants are on the path to defeat.
“So far, in terms of what we had hoped to do, we are pretty much on track,” said a U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss sensitive subjects. “We’re actually a little bit ahead of where we wanted to be.”
The fight, however, is entering what Pentagon officials have called a new and potentially harder phase, one that will entail a deeper level of U.S. involvement but also tougher targets.
In an attempt to ramp up the tempo of the war, the U.S. military is escalating its engagement, dispatching an additional 450 Special Operations forces and other troops to Syria and Iraq, deploying hundreds of Marines close to the front lines in Iraq and bringing Apache attack helicopters and B-52s into service for the air campaign.
The extra resources are an acknowledgment, U.S. officials say, that the war can’t be won without a greater level of American involvement. The targets that lie ahead are those that are most important to the militants’ self-proclaimed caliphate, including their twin capitals of Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq and, to a lesser extent, Fallujah, a key concern because of its proximity to Baghdad. [Continue reading…]