Fight Against Islamic State Not Going So Well, Say Former Administration Officials

Jan 12, 2016
Defense Drumbeat
"IS poses a significant and lethal threat to the United States of America"

By: Kate Brannen - Vice News

A trio of former Obama administration officials painted a grim picture of the fight against the Islamic State group, on the day of the president's State of the Union speech.

"I would not be surprised if I woke up one morning and ISIS in Libya had grabbed a large portion" of territory there, similar to the Blitzkrieg-style push it made in Iraq in 2014, former acting CIA Director Michael Morell told the House Armed Services Committee during a hearing on Tuesday.

His comment echoed the concerns of the committee's chairman, Texas Republican Mac Thornberry, who said that while there has been some success in reclaiming towns in Iraq and Syria, more broadly, the Islamic State's influence has grown in countries like Libya and Afghanistan, and even in the United States.

With the help of airstrikes from the US-led coalition, Iraqi troops wrested control this month of a major city, Ramadi, from the group also known as IS or ISIS.

This battlefield victory is one of the wins Obama may highlight in his annual speech to Congress, as he makes the case that the White House's current strategy against ISIS is working...

But Morell, along with former Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Michael Vickers and former US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, argued that airstrikes and battlefield victories alone will not defeat the Islamic State.

Removing the leadership is easier than denying the group a safe haven, Morell said.

Denying IS its safe havens in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere will require complex military actions, but it will also take political solutions in Damascus and addressing the Sunni-Shia divide in Iraq, Morell said. "We really can't have military success without political solutions in both places."

Ford agreed that without political solutions in Iraq or Syria, the fight against IS would not end...

Morell, Ford and Vickers all agreed that Assad has to go, but did not put a deadline on his departure. One internal timeline prepared for U.S. officials painted a scenario that did not foresee Assad stepping down as the country's leader before March 2017.

As for who could follow Assad, "initially, it would be a very wobbly government," Ford said. But "I do not believe that if Assad goes, it's inevitable that IS takes over."

As for the military component of the strategy, the problem remains the lack of a strong enough ground force, especially in Syria, Morell said.

There is a strategy in Iraq to build a ground force, and the victory in Ramadi is an example of its potential, he said. But "there is no strategy in Syria for a ground force with that same potential."

He suggested that following Assad's departure, Syrian government forces, "as degraded as they are," should be turned into the force to take on IS.

Even in Iraq, the ability to create a large enough ground force with the will to fight ISIS remains in question.

"My sense is that in Iraq there is military progress," Ford said. But low oil prices are putting serious pressure on the ability of the Iraqi and Kurdish governments to wage war against the Islamic State.

"Some of the Peshmerga [Kurdish] fighters had not been paid in three months," Ford said.

Iraq and Syria will also need money and resources to help local authorities step in and provide services to local populations as territory is reclaimed from ISIS, he said.

In his remarks, Vickers argued that the US strategy could no longer afford to put Syria on the back burner.

Syria is where "the battle for the future of the Middle East is largely being waged," and the U.S. should adopt a "Syria-first" strategy, he said.

He called for an intensification of airstrikes and more raids by US special operations forces...

Morell issued a particularly bleak picture of the danger posed by ISIS.

"I believe IS poses a significant and lethal threat to the United States of America," he said.

It is so dangerous because it is a combination of things, including a quasi-state, a terrorist group and a revolutionary political movement, according to Morell: "We have not faced the likes of it before." And it had more sympathizers in the US, according to Morell, than al Qaeda ever had. 

114th Congress