The White House on Tuesday defended President Obama’s strategy for combating the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), even as the terror network racks up substantial tactical gains and a top Pentagon official has conceded he is only “somewhat” confident Iraqi forces can hold Baghdad.
For the administration, projecting confidence and progress is essential in order to retain and recruit allies for a campaign the United States knows it cannot win on its own.
It’s also essential to minimizing the political headaches created by military setbacks — an especially important point for a White House desperately seeking to project competence before the midterm elections.
The president met with top military officials from the United States and 21 coalition partners at Joint Base Andrews Tuesday, a session designed to demonstrate unity in the fight against ISIS.
And White House press secretary Josh Earnest insisted that the president’s plan against ISIS was “succeeding.”
“We’re in the early days of the execution of that strategy,” he said. “But certainly, the early evidence indicates that this strategy is succeeding.”
Earnest pointed to two pieces of evidence for that claim from Iraq: the achievement of dislodging ISIS’s control of the critical Mosul Dam and the evacuation of embattled Yazidi civilians from Mount Sinjar.
But other events on the ground are not cooperating with the White House’s preferred narrative.
Defense officials acknowledged Tuesday that ISIS forces now have “relative freedom of influence throughout” Anbar province, after killing its police chief and taking over a military base.
“It’s hard to say how close Anbar is to falling,” Pentagon spokesman Army Col. Steve Warren said Tuesday. “We know that ISIS can move freely around the Anbar province.”
On Tuesday, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno expressed reservations about the Iraqi military’s ability to protect its nation’s capital, Baghdad, saying he was “somewhat” confident they could do so.
“We’ll have to see what plays out over the coming days,” Odierno said.
In Syria, ISIS forces are inching closer to capturing Kobani, an ethnically Kurdish town near the border with Turkey, despite an escalated air campaign outside the city.
The United States and its partners have conducted at least 90 airstrikes near Kobani since Sept. 23.
U.S. Central Command said in a statement Tuesday, “indications are that airstrikes have slowed [ISIS] advances.”
“However, the security situation on the ground there remains fluid, with [ISIS] attempting to gain territory and Kurdish militia continuing to hold out,” the command said.
President Obama conceded Tuesday that there would be setbacks in the war against ISIS.
“This is going to be a long-term campaign; there are no quick fixes involved,” Obama said.
Pentagon officials expressed similar sentiments.
“This is the nature of warfare. This is the nature of battle. There will be ebbs and flows across the battlefield for months,” said Warren.
But long-term confidence is of little solace to vulnerable Democrats facing the voters in less than three weeks.
Republicans on the campaign trail have repeatedly questioned the president’s ability — and that of his party — to lead against ISIS. One ad from former Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), who is now running in New Hampshire, warned that “radical terrorists are threatening the collapse of our country” and that his Democratic opponent was “confused about the nature of the threat.”
In Colorado, Republicans have seized on Sen. Mark Udall’s (D-Colo.) assertion that ISIS “does not present an imminent threat to this nation,” while GOP Senate candidate Rep. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) is running a campaign ad bashing Obama for his admission that the administration underestimated how quickly the terrorist network could seize territory.
The fall of Kobani or bloody scenes in the streets of Baghdad would only provide more ammunition for Republicans ahead of the midterms.
The White House on Tuesday insisted it wasn’t considering the political implications of the president’s strategy.
“The thing that we’re focused on is our core national security priorities,” Earnest said. “Those things, I think we would all agree, are far more important than politics, even when we’re talking about an important election like the one that’s coming up.”
Kenneth Pollack, a foreign policy scholar at the Brookings Institution, argued it was smart for the administration to stand by its strategy and prepare the public for bumps in the road.
Pollack noted that the administration saw its biggest political problems months ago, when the president said the U.S. had not yet developed a strategy — comments that spooked both a domestic audience and international allies.
“In every single war, there is this inherent tension, and air power takes a long time to work — it’s the nature of air power, it’s cumulative,” Pollack said.
But the real peril for the White House is the possibility that it has committed to a plan that cannot succeed, as some foreign policy experts have suggested.
“This is in no way destroying, defeating, or whatever the phrase you want to use, ISIS. All it’s doing is forcing them to adjust,” said New America Foundation senior fellow Dave Kilcullen, who served as a senior adviser to then-Iraq Commander Gen. David Petraeus in 2007.
“You only have to look at the way that they’ve continued to maneuver in Iraq, expanding the area under their control, capturing an Iraqi army base ... the way that they’re dispersing within cities and hiding among the population,” he said.
Kilcullen and Pollack both said it would be months or even years before conventional Iraqi or Syrian rebel forces would be capable enough to take on ISIS on their own.
“If we want to see this truly work, it’s going to need troops that can accompany guys on the ground to assist,” Kilcullen said.This story was posted at 2:09 p.m. and updated at 8:10 p.m.