Officials say U.S.-led airstrikes are not stopping the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) from gaining ground in Iraq and Syria, raising questions as to whether President Obama’s strategy against the terrorist group is working.
Defense officials have admitted the Kurdish town of Kobani in northern Syria could also fall to ISIS, even as the U.S. has increased airstrikes around the besieged town that is home to as many as 400,000 Kurds.
The U.S. has used bombers, fighter jets and drones to conduct at least 37 airstrikes in and around Kobani, but has not succeeded in stopping the group’s advance there since airstrikes began in Syria several weeks ago.
"U.S. Central Command continues to monitor the situation in Kobani closely. Indications are that Kurdish militia there continue to control most of the city and are holding out against ISIL," Centcom said in a statement Thursday, using an alternative acronym for ISIS.
Pentagon officials also said this week that ISIS is gaining ground in western Iraq, despite the U.S. and partner nations conducting more than 345 strikes there and dropping more than 1,140 munitions since Aug. 8.
The U.S. and partners have conducted more than 124 airstrikes in Syria since Sept. 22.
The president emerged from a meeting at the Pentagon with top leaders this week expressing confidence in the strategy, but administration critics pointed to the group’s gains to call for a new military strategy.
“With two months now of airstrikes, the president's strategy clearly isn't working. ISIL continues to grow, gobble up more territory from Baghdad to Kobani,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) said Thursday on Fox News.
“They keep moving. They get stronger. The president gave a speech a couple months ago of how serious the threat is and how we were going to degrade and destroy them. Well, we're not,” he said.
Defense officials are urging the American public to be patient, saying it is too soon to tell if the strategy — which consists of a handful of targeted airstrikes per day in Iraq and Syria, as well as training indigenous ground forces in Iraq and Syria — is working.
Some military experts say the strategy is clearly not working, and that the president should dramatically expand airstrikes in Iraq and Syria.
“You can see that they’re expanding their area of control. ... This is in no way destroying or defeating ISIS. All it’s doing is forcing them to adapt,” said David Kilcullen, a counterinsurgency expert and a senior fellow at the left-leaning New America Foundation.
Kilcullen, who served with the State Department as a senior adviser to retired Gen. David Petraeus in Iraq in 2007, said it would take “months to years” to build capable ground forces in Iraq and Syria, and that U.S. advisers should be able to accompany those forces into battle.
“In fact, without some kind of significant ground force, an air campaign alone is actually going to improve the enemy’s quality by killing the stupid and unlucky ones and bringing more talented and savvy guys to the fore,” he said.
"We need to be cautious about ascribing too much value to committing airpower and airstrikes to this campaign," said retired Army Lt. Gen. David Barno, a senior fellow at the bipartisan Center for a New American Security in a recent interview with The Hill.
"Ultimately, it's going to be Iraqi boots on the ground, peshmerga boots on the ground, Syrian boots on the ground supported by American airpower that turns it around," he added.
The Pentagon said Wednesday it was still in the “very early stages” of the training moderate Syrian rebels, and that vetting and recruiting fighters have not started yet.
Administration officials have vowed not to send U.S. troops back into combat in Iraq, or to Syria, but experts say expanding the mission of the 1,600 U.S. troops ordered there could be necessary.
“You really need to also have advisers that are able to accompany the ground forces that they are assisting,” Kilcullen said.