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Why Airstrikes Won't Destroy the Islamic State

Experts say bombings by the US and its allies may cost ISIS some turf but won't stop it from launching attacks around the world.

by Jacob Siegel
Jan 27 2016, 7:00pm

In anticipation of the upcoming fourth season of our HBO show, which will premiere February 5 at 11 PM, we are releasing all of season three for free online along with updates to the stories. Today's installment follows up on a dispatch called Global Jihad, which explored the Islamic State's appeal in Europe and US airstrikes against the group. Watch the episode below:

Last spring, America's unofficial war against the Islamic State seemed to be in crisis. "The fall of Ramadi exposes Obama's weak Islamic State strategy, " read the headline of a Washington Post editorial after the terror group captured the key city less than 100 miles from Baghdad. And that was before the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino set off waves of panic about jihadi attacks in the West.

More than six months later, the good news is that there has been some obvious progress since Ramadi fell. ISIS has endured significant losses, and despite ongoing clashes, Ramadi itself is mostly back in the hands of Iraqi security forces.

The bad news is that the biggest battles against ISIS still lie ahead, not only in Iraq and Syria, but in places like Afghanistan and Libya, where the group has spread. The chief question is where the armies to fight those battles will come from. Under President Obama, who was elected on a promise to pull American troops out of Iraq, the US has refused to provide the ground forces to fight ISIS in the Middle East.

Colonel Steve Warren, a spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve—the military's name for its battle against ISIS—recently told reporters that the Islamic State has lost an estimated 40 percent of its territory in Iraq and 20 percent in Syria in the past year. That's higher than some estimates from outside the Pentagon, but even independent analysis shows ISIS losing turf over the past year.

According to a former Army Special Forces officer who served in Iraq during the last war and now works as a civilian in the country's Kurdish region, US airstrikes have been instrumental in rolling back advances from ISIS and changing the nature of the battlefield in Iraq.

"Nobody feels like ISIS is what it was a year and a half ago," the former officer said about the mood among anti-ISIS populations in northern Iraq. "Nobody thinks anymore that they have hundreds of trucks that are going to swarm out of the desert. Those fears are gone. "

Still, airstrikes alone can't defeat ISIS, particularly in areas like Mosul where the group is mixed with civilian populations. It takes ground soldiers to clear ISIS out and hold ground to prevent its return; local forces had some success in the past year, especially when they had direct support from American airpower, like Kurdish and Yazidi forces had in Sinjar. But there is still nothing close to a broad coalition in the region that can translate tactical gains into strategic victory because many of the groups fighting ISIS, like the Shia militias in Iraq and the Kurdish peshmerga, are also deeply suspicious of each other.

And rolling back the Islamic State's territorial gains, however promising, only tells part of the story.

According to Brian Fishman, a fellow at New America and an ISIS analyst who's writing a book about the group, it's important to remember that the Islamic State is a "hybrid group."

"There are three dimensions in which ISIS has to be considered," he said. First, "how is it doing in the core areas of control in Iraq and Syria?" Second, "how is it doing spreading to the wilayats [provinces] outside the core?" And third, "how is it doing as a global terrorist organization, committing attacks across the international system?"

"In Iraq and Syria, ISIS is on the defensive from a year ago, but when it comes to the wilayats, they're stronger" Fishman told me. He also noted "reports that they have moved a number of people from Iraq and Syria to Libya," adding, "to the extent that it's happening that's striking. That's the kind of thing people always worried about with al Qaeda."

Lastly, as a global terrorist group, the Islamic State has "executed that obviously very well in 2015," Fishman added, pointing to high-profile incidents like the downing of a Russian passenger plane over Sinai, which ISIS claimed credit for in its house magazine Dabiq and security officials blamed on a terror act.

Retired Army Colonel Derek Harvey, who served in Iraq as a senior analyst under General David Petraeus, believes there's been "some shift in [the Islamic State's] operational momentum," but that the significance of that change has been exaggerated.

"[Anti-ISIS] coalition and Iraqi forces have made tactical gains in Ramadi, Tikrit and areas around Baghdad," Harvey, who now studies ISIS as a researcher at the University of South Florida, told me. "But the gains are overstated because many of those areas are still contested by ISIS and the advances are disconnected from any political or security efforts from Baghdad or the coalition to address the underlying factors behind ISIS' rise.

Like Fishman, Harvey believes that the Islamic State's global expansion has been successful over the past year despite US and international efforts to keep a lid on the group. "Strategically ISIS is still expanding outside of Iraq and Syria," Harvey said. "[ISIS] still has tremendous resources, personnel, a recruitment flow of foreign fighters and leadership that for the most part is still intact and strong.

According to the Pentagon, as of December 15, the US has spent $5.5 billion fighting the Islamic State since August 2014, the month the unofficial war began. That's an average cost of $11 million per day.In statements last week, Army spokesman Colonel Steve Warren gave some details on where the money's gone.

"So far in the air campaign, we have flown 65,492 sorties, and we have conducted 9,782 airstrikes," the colonel said of the American-led coalition, including 6,516 strikes in Iraq and 3,266 in Syria. A Pentagon press release adds that "coalition strikes have killed about 95 senior and mid-level ISIL leaders since the beginning of May," and says that, aside from the cost of the air war, the coalition has "provided basic combat training for 16,715 personnel and put thousands more through various specialized training programs."

Meanwhile, the Islamic State's finances have deteriorated, with the group reportedly losing a significant amount of oil revenue due to US airstrikes, which compelled it cut pay for members in half.

Despite the gains touted by the Pentagon and Defense Secretary Ash Carter's recent pledge in Politico magazine to "do more" and "accelerate" the fight against ISIS, the essential limit on US involvement remains the same: There's only so much more we can do without sending Americans in to do the fighting.

"It must be local forces who deliver ISIL a lasting defeat, " Carter wrote, "because only they can secure and govern the territory by building long-term trust within the populations they liberate. We can and will enable such local forces, but we cannot substitute for them."

Jacob Siegel is a writer living in New York and one of the authors of Fire and Forget. He was formerly a reporter at the Daily Beast covering war and security issues. Follow him on Twitter.