After A Year Of Bombing ISIS, U.S. Campaign Shows Just Limited Gains : Parallels Airstrikes have helped push back the Islamic State in some places, but the group has gained in other areas. Pentagon officials say the U.S. operation may need another two years or more to succeed.

After A Year Of Bombing ISIS, U.S. Campaign Shows Just Limited Gains

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The U.S. air war against the self-proclaimed Islamic State is turning 1-year-old today. A year ago, President Obama announced he was authorizing military action in Iraq, largely for humanitarian purposes. Air strikes began the next day to rescue the Yazidi people trapped on Iraq's Mt. Sinjar. Over the past year, in a widening campaign, 6,000 more bombing runs have been flown over both Iraq and Syria. NPR's David Welna has this report.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Late last month in the oven-hot Jordanian desert, Defense Secretary Ash Carter faced a group of U.S. airmen and women who fly bombing raids against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. He'd come to this air base near the Syrian border with a pep talk.


DEFENSE SECRETARY ASH CARTER: This enemy has to be defeated. They will be because, you know, the barbarians are always defeated by civilization and a few by the many, the evil by the good. So I don't have any doubt that we will win.

WELNA: But Pentagon officials say victory is at least two years away. Still, last week, the top American commander in the war zone said the airstrikes have hurt the Islamic State's ability to mount big attacks and operate in the open. Marine Gen. Kevin Killea added those bombing runs have been chosen with great caution.

GENERAL KEVIN KILLEA: I will emphasize that every target is carefully considered by coalition air forces to address and minimize the possibility of collateral damage and civilian casualties.

WELNA: But one prominent critic calls this an excess of caution.

GENERAL DAVID DEPTULA: The air attacks, to date, have been what can only be called anemic.

WELNA: That's retired Air Force Gen. David Deptula. He directed the air campaigns in the first Gulf War and invasion of Afghanistan. Deptula says it's not possible to defeat the Islamic State by flying an average of little more than a dozen airstrikes a day.

DEPTULA: The administration's incomplete strategy places U.S. commanders in an untenable situation. It's not unlike the failed strategy that was employed in Vietnam.

WELNA: The current air campaign has drawn fire on Capitol Hill as well. At a hearing last month, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, who himself flew combat missions in Vietnam, railed against the administration's strategy.


JOHN MCCAIN: Our means and our current level of effort are not aligned with our ends. That suggests we are not winning. And when you're not winning in war, you are losing.

WELNA: When President Obama first announced the airstrikes a year ago, he did not even refer to them as war.


BARACK OBAMA: As commander in chief, I will not allow the United States to be dragged into fighting another war in Iraq.

WELNA: But just a month after that, the president announced an escalation in the anti-Islamic State campaign.


OBAMA: Tonight I want to speak to you about what the United States will do with our friends and allies to degrade and ultimately destroy the terrorist group known as ISIL.

WELNA: At the time, there were some 400 U.S. forces on the ground in Iraq. Today, there are more than 3,500. George Washington University's Stephen Biddle advised Gen. David Petraeus during the first Iraq War. He says the U.S. has a Goldilocks strategy - trying not to do too much or too little against an enemy it sees only as a limited threat.

STEPHEN BIDDLE: They want to try to and do something militarily that's comparably limited and that's not enough to do the job. Failure in doing the job produces these pressures to escalate. But they don't want to escalate a lot because they don't think it's worth it, so they escalate a little. That doesn't do it either. That yields more pressure. This is a recipe for mission creep.

WELNA: Indeed, just last month, Defense Secretary Carter told U.S. troops in Iraq that operations there could expand if the effort to retrain Iraqi troops is more successful.


CARTER: It's possible that we'll need to do more and have the opportunity in the sense to do more when they get more proficient. And obviously, we're hoping that they do.

WELNA: But Iraqi troops were routed in May when Islamic State forces seized the provincial capital of Ramadi. Carter had this scathing assessment on CNN after that setback.


CARTER: What apparently happened was that the Iraqi forces just showed no will to fight.

WELNA: Getting those Iraqi forces to fight is key to the U.S. strategy because Obama insists there will be no U.S. forces doing any ground fighting there. Retired Army Col. Andrew Bacevich is a military historian. He says the U.S. effort to retrain Iraqis is misguided.

COLONEL ANDREW BACEVICH: I see no reason to expect that we can motivate that army to actually fight effectively against the enemy. And I think that's really the key defect of this entire strategy.

WELNA: The problem, says former military adviser Biddle, is one of mixed motives.

BIDDLE: We would like to think if we just provide the training or the arms or the money or other resources, then locals will see the threat the same way we do and will rise up and counter the threat the same way we'd like them to counter the threat. And the trouble is, locals have all sorts of interests here, many of which don't align very well with ours at all.

WELNA: Nowhere has this been more apparent than in Syria, where the U.S. has tried to recruit and train forces solely to fight the Islamic State. Last month, Secretary Carter admitted to Congress that effort has not gone well.


CARTER: We are currently training about 60 fighters. This number is much smaller than we'd hoped for at this point.

WELNA: Since then, some of those fighters have been captured or killed. Others have fled the battlefield. But Carter says that recruiting effort will continue, just like the air war, now beginning its second year. David Welna, NPR News, Washington.

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