Back to Iraq — but for how long?

Back to Iraq — but for how long?
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Military officials are signaling that the fight against Islamist militants in Iraq could take years, raising the possibility of a new, open-ended military commitment that lasts beyond the Obama presidency.

Tony Blinken, the White House’s deputy national security adviser, says defeating the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq (ISIS) would require a long-term commitment.

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"Look, at the end of the day, this, as the president has said, is going to have to be a sustained effort, and it's going to take time, and it'll probably go beyond even this administration to get to the point of defeat," he said Wednesday evening on CNN. 

Though nothing is set in stone, American officials have outlined the elements of a strategy for taking on ISIS that could take months, if not years, to carry out.

That raises the potential that President Obama will leave behind a significant military presence in the Middle East despite his vows to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan by the end of his term.

Blinken has said the U.S. and any coalition of nations fighting ISIS would have to deal with the group’s war fighting strategy. Next, they would have to weaken its support network, including its financing, propaganda and recruitment. 

The next move would be courting ISIS's local supporters, such as alienated Sunnis in Iraq, and trying to "move them back to the other side." Finally, assistance would be given to local actors who could take and hold territory from ISIS.

Experts say that plan could take more than a decade to achieve.

"This is a project that is going to take years at a minimum," said David Schenker, Aufzien Fellow and Arab Politics Program director at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. 

"It'll take a significant amount of time. ISIS is an organization that is not only a military organization. ... They also provide social services," he said. "They have a reservoir of sympathy." 

"It's not nearly just degrading their capability — which they can rebuild. They control territory, they charge taxes and sell oil." 

Administration officials have said they are planning to help Iraq rebuild its security forces after its leaders form a new, inclusive government. 

Retraining Shiites who make up the majority of the Iraqi military force would not take a lot of time, but training Sunnis — who have been largely excluded from joining — would be a daunting project, according to one expert. 

Mike Pregent, an adjunct lecturer at National Defense University, said the administration should focus on building up the “Sons of Iraq,” the Sunni forces who were previously trained by the U.S.

"You can't start from scratch," said Pregent, also an adviser to Iraqi security forces.

Similarly, it could take years to train and equip moderate opposition forces in Syria who have been weakened by their two-front fight against ISIS and Syrian leader Bashar Assad.

The Free Syrian Army "is not significant," Schenker said. "It you want to make it significant, it's going to take some time." 

The White House has asked Congress for $500 million to train and equip the moderate Syrian forces, but the funding is unlikely to come before October, if not later, and distributing it could take 18 months or more.

Whatever course he chooses to fight ISIS, Obama has made clear he plans to stick to a multilateral approach.

"We want partner nations to contribute what they are able and willing to contribute in whatever fashion they're willing to contribute it," Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said earlier in the week. 

"And understanding, of course, that they have domestic concerns, as well, and their own legislative bodies to work through on this, and populations who have, you know, different views on assisting against the [ISIS] threat. We respect that," he said. 

Blinken said the administration is talking to "a dozen" of countries. So far, officials have hinted that the United Kingdom, Australia, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt would be on board. 

"All of that is coming together, but it takes time to do it and to do it right. That's what we're working on," Blinken said. "There's a lot of work to be done. It's gonna take time." 

Schenker was less optimistic, noting that the U.S. has taken on al Qaeda in the past decade with hundreds of thousands of troops and drone operations in a half dozen countries.

"And Al Qaeda is still alive and kicking," he said.