WASHINGTON — The United States’ senior military officer in charge of operations said Monday that U.S. airstrikes in Iraq have not affected the overall military effectiveness of the Islamic State and aren’t likely to, as long as protecting American lives and rescuing a trapped minority sect are the primary U.S. missions there.
Army Lt. Gen. William Mayville Jr., the director of operations for the Joint Staff, said the United States has mounted 17 U.S. airstrikes over four days. But he used words such as “temporary effect” and “slowed” to describe the impact of those strikes.
“These strikes are unlikely to affect ISIL’s overall capabilities or its operations in other areas of Iraq and Syria,” Mayville said, using the government’s preferred acronym for the Islamic State, which also is called the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. “In the immediate areas where we have focused our strikes, we’ve had a very temporary effect and we may have blunted some tactical decisions to move in those directions, further east to Irbil.”
U.S. officials have made no secret that they intend the military’s current involvement in Iraq to be a limited one. In announcing that he had authorized the military to take action last week, President Barack Obama cited two goals for the intervention: to protect the large American presence in Irbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government, and to help ease the siege of tens of thousands of Yazidi civilians trapped in desolate mountains where they fled the Islamic State capture of the city of Sinjar.
But Mayville’s less than triumphal account of the impact of the U.S. intervention so far was a reminder of what many critics of Obama’s Iraq policy have argued in recent days: limited airstrikes are unlikely to do much to roll back the Islamic State, which now controls the better part of 50 percent of Iraq and at least a third of neighboring Syria.
The Islamic State victories continued on Monday, even as Kurds expressed gratitude for the contribution U.S. airstrikes had made to their retaking on Sunday of Gwer and Mahmour, two towns less than 30 minutes’ drive from Irbil that had fallen to the Islamic State last week.
In Diyala province to the south, Islamic State fighters drove Kurdish militamen from the town of Jalawla, northeast of Baghdad. In Syria, Reuters reported that the Islamic State had beaten back a revolt by local tribes that had challenged its hold on key areas of Deir el Zour province. The news agency, citing the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor of violence in Iraq, said the Islamic State had executed 23 people in Deir el Zour province in recent days.
Some officials at the Pentagon have voiced frustration with the lack of definition in the U.S. policy toward the Islamic State, worrying that a limited campaign could lead to growing involvement even as the administration pledges to keep the U.S. goals limited. Pentagon officials are concerned, for example, by President Obama’s assertion Saturday that “the next step” for aiding the Yazidis trapped in the Sinjar mountains is providing “safe passage for people down from the mountain.”
That almost certainly would require ground troops, as would stopping the Islamic State’s push into Iraq. And Obama has vowed not to use ground troops, leaving only local forces that have shown themselves incapable of stopping the extremists.
On Monday, Mayville repeatedly said U.S. strikes on Islamic State artillery launchers and mortar positions in northern Iraq had had only a temporary impact on the Islamic State’s momentum. At most, the strikes had led Islamic State forces to stop operating in the open and move toward hiding in urban areas. He said the question of whether ground forces were required was “a little too speculative for me.”
Mayville said there were “no plans” to expand the U.S. effort. Instead, it appeared the United States hoped its strikes, coupled with a push to provide more arms to Kurdish forces, would be enough to fend off an Islamic State threat into Kurdish areas.
Defense officials said the Pentagon soon would be providing weapons and ammunition directly to the Kurdish fighters, known as peshmerga, after confirming that other U.S. government agencies already had provided such equipment. That arming would limit the Islamic State’s expansion into Kurdish areas.
“We are looking at looking at how we can help them and studying the challenges they have,” Mayville said. “We are looking at plans on how we can expand that support.”
“It appears U.S. policy is to limit ISIL’s expansion into Kurdish areas,” said Christopher Harmer, a senior naval analyst for the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War.
But that is unlikely to be a satisfactory goal for Iraq’s central government in Baghdad, which has seen Islamic State capture most of three provinces and press its campaign in others since June 10, when it captured Mosul, the country’s second largest city.