“It will take time.”
That was the line used repeatedly Friday by the U.S. general leading the military campaign against the Islamic State, in his first news conference at the Pentagon since taking charge of Central Command last year.
While Army Gen. Lloyd Austin praised some “encouraging” signs, he cautioned patience on virtually every aspect of this open-ended battle, suggesting that it would take years to build viable Iraqi and Syrian partner forces, reclaim territory from the militants, and reform the oppressive governments whose policies fuel extremism.
“We can and will get the job done and done well,” Austin said. “But, again, it will take time.”
Austin, who has served as the Army’s vice chief of staff and as commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, is known to avoid the limelight. A profile on the niche website Foreign Policy this week described him as “one of the more silent generals” and noted that even President Barack Obama called him out for trying to sneak off the stage at an appearance last month at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla., where Central Command is headquartered.
On Friday, however, Austin seemed at ease giving his first public assessment of the much-criticized, still-evolving military campaign he commands. He dwelt on the Obama administration mantra that air power alone won’t defeat the Islamic State, and he acknowledged that the entire effort hinged on the building of trusted, viable ground forces in Iraq and Syria – so far the most elusive part of the strategy.
“We’ll be able to put quality soldiers on the battlefield that can get the job done,” Austin vowed, but, when pressed, he couldn’t predict a time frame.
“It’ll take time,” he repeated.
U.S. officials have said the United States is only at the very beginning of creating a new Syrian paramilitary, which will be handpicked from the country’s hodgepodge of rebel forces whose first concern isn’t the Islamic State but their long struggle to overthrow the government of President Bashar Assad.
Austin certainly didn’t raise hopes about the prospects of a streamlined Syrian ground partner emerging anytime soon; at one point he referred to the goal as “hopefully, a force that we can train in Syria.”
The message couched in Austin’s remarks was clear: The existing Syrian rebel structure is untenable and the United States aims to build its own Syrian proxy – only this time, enemy No. 1 is the Islamic State instead of Assad. It remains unclear how many Syrian rebels would sign up on those terms. It’s even less clear how many of the current rebels the United States is courting, given their repeated battlefield coordination with the local al Qaida affiliate and other jihadists.
“We’ll be very deliberate about screening and vetting them and hopefully that will do some things to help guarantee some success,” Austin said of the recruiting effort for Syria.
Things aren’t moving any more quickly in Iraq, where the goal is to reconstitute the U.S.-trained Iraqi security forces that collapsed during the Islamic State’s summer offensive. The United States spent around $17 billion training and equipping the Iraqi security forces from 2003 to 2012, according to reports, only to see the Islamic State extremists seize the U.S. weapons and supplies in their push through northern and central Iraq over the summer.
The weak Baghdad government is now forced into relying on Iranian-backed Shiite Muslim militias and untrained volunteers to fill the security vacuum. That’s led to an indirect U.S.-Iranian partnership against the Islamic State, translating into the U.S. military providing air cover for the same Shiite militiamen who not too many years ago were killing American soldiers.
Austin said that the deep-rooted sectarianism in Iraq remains a threat to the U.S. military’s efforts there, but he added that he was heartened by the promises of new Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi, whom he described as a Shiite leader who’s trying to enlist Sunni tribes in the fight against the Islamic State.
Austin took a swipe at Abadi’s unpopular predecessor, Nouri al Maliki, saying that tackling the sectarianism was critical because “we got here because of poor governance to begin with.”
While the general’s tone was somber throughout most of his appearance, he sounded most upbeat when describing some of the Islamic State losses he chalked up to American airstrikes. Austin said that the militants are now afraid to talk on their usual networks and have stopped assembling in large numbers, a sign that “their command-and-control architecture is somewhat fragmented.”
Nevertheless, the Islamic State is putting up quite a fight, attacking the Kurdish town of Kobani in Syria, launching fresh offensives in Iraq’s Anbar province, and menacing the capital, Baghdad. Austin predicted that, within eight months to a year, the Islamic State’s capabilities would be diminished.
“We are having the desired effects,” Austin said, “but this will take some time.”