The Obama administration on Thursday offered a very mixed assessment of progress in the U.S.-led campaign to degrade and defeat the Islamic State, with no serious ground offensive against the militant group likely for at least a year and little sign that the effort to stanch its flow of money has succeeded.
In separate briefings offered hundreds of miles apart, representatives of the U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Fla., and the Treasury Department in Washington described only incremental progress in the fight against the Islamic State.
Militarily, Centcom commanders said, U.S. air support has created a stalemate in parts of Syria and Iraq – and that was the good news. But the number of attack sorties U.S. aircraft can fly has been hampered by the lack of a ground force capable of taking advantage of the air power, officials in Tampa said.
“We are operating at the pace” that troops in Iraq can support, a U.S. official told reporters at a briefing at U.S. Central Command headquarters. He spoke anonymously under the conditions of the briefing.
Meanwhile, a key Treasury Department official in Washington offered details of Islamic State funding that suggested the organization likely has earned $120 million in oil revenue and perhaps $20 million from kidnapping ransoms in the four months since it seized control of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, and began its march across north and central Iraq and eastern Syria.
“It is difficult to get precise revenue estimates on the value to ISIL of these transactions in light of the murky nature of the market, but we estimate that beginning in mid-June, ISIL has earned approximately $1 million a day from oil sales,” said David S. Cohen, Treasury’s undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, referring to the Islamic State by an acronym.
It’s all a far cry from President Barack Obama’s January assessment that the group was akin to a junior varsity team and not in the big leagues. Cohen repeated a CIA assessment from last month that the group’s combat troops include 15,000 foreign fighters from 80 countries, including dozens from the United States.
Speaking to a packed audience at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Cohen said airstrikes on the Islamic State had cut its oil revenues. He cautioned that efforts to choke off the Islamic State’s finances will happen “over time,” and success will not be immediate.
“One of the challenges is that ISIL controls territory,” Cohen said during a question-and-answer session, adding that the group is thus able to go door to door to extort money from locals, steal their crops and coerce cooperation.
It also means the Islamic State can take advantage of long-established smuggling routes because it controls both sides of the Iraq-Syria border. “The smuggling routes have existed for a long period of time, long before ISIL was active in the territory,” Cohen said.
Oil is being moved, he said, in everything from “relatively sizable tankers to smaller containers.” Much of it ends up in Turkey, a NATO ally, Cohen said.
Later in the day, flanked by Cohen, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said that the administration is studying the entire oil chain, searching for legitimate businesses that can be hit with the kinds of sanctions the Treasury Department is accustomed to using in terrorism cases.
“At some point, there is someone in that chain of transactions who is involved in the legitimate or quasi-legitimate economy,” Earnest said. “They have a bank account. Their trucks may be insured. They may have licensing on their facilities. There is someone who our tools, our designation tools can influence.”
On the military side, U.S. officials also are expecting a long time to pass before they are in a position to roll back the Islamic State in either Iraq or Syria.
With the Obama administration vowing not to send in U.S. ground forces, the anti-Islamic State campaign depends on the Iraqi army, the Kurdish peshmerga and various Syrian rebel groups to battle the Islamic State. None is expected to be ready for an aggressive advance soon.
In Iraq, forces loyal to the government in Baghdad won’t be ready to advance on Mosul for at least a year, the military briefers in Tampa said. In Syria, the time period before a trained and vetted force is likely to be ready to confront the Islamic State is even longer – perhaps 18 months.
“We are at the front end of what we anticipate to be a months- or years-long effort along both sides of the border,” a second defense official said at the briefing.
According to statistics the briefers provided, U.S. and coalition forces have conducted 346 airstrikes in Iraq and 286 in Syria since Aug. 8, including 15 between Wednesday and Thursday. In all, there have been 6,600 sorties, most intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance flights.
But those strikes are often in response to Islamic State forces’ movements and not because of any offensive action take by forces on the ground. The number of strikes is “frankly very dependent on their pace of operations,” one of the defense officials said of the Islamic State.
As for hopes that Sunni Muslim tribes will rise up in Iraq against the Islamic State, the officials said that will depend on whether it appears the Islamic State is going to be defeated.
In Sunni-dominated Anbar province, for example, tribal leaders are not likely to align with the Iraqi government unless they believe its forces can defeat the Islamic State.
That hesitance is likely to allow the Islamic State to continue to draw closer to Baghdad International Airport, which is critical to U.S. operations. The threat to the airport is likely to grow next summer, one of the officials said.