The American war against the Islamic State has become the most opaque conflict the United States has undertaken in more than two decades, a fight that’s so underreported that U.S. officials and their critics can make claims about progress, or lack thereof, with no definitive data available to refute or bolster their positions.
The result is that it’s unclear what impact more than 1,000 airstrikes on Iraq and Syria have had during the past four months. That confusion was on display at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing earlier this week, where the topic – “Countering ISIS: Are We Making Progress?” – proved to be a question without an answer.
“Although the administration notes that 60-plus countries having joined the anti-ISIS campaign, some key partners continue to perceive the administration’s strategy as misguided,” Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., the committee’s chairman, said in his opening statement at the hearing, using a common acronym for the Islamic State. “Meanwhile, there are grave security consequences to allowing ISIS to control a territory of the size of western Iraq and eastern Syria.”
The dearth of information by which to judge the conflict is one of the difficulties for those trying to track progress in it. The U.S. military, which started out announcing every air mission almost as soon as it ended, now publishes roundups of airstrikes three times a week. Those releases often don’t specify which strikes happened on what days or even whether a targeted site was successfully hit. McClatchy has discovered that in some cases, the location given for bombings has been inaccurate by nearly 100 miles.
In previous recent wars, the military offered either regular updates or a chance for reporters to embed with troops and see the conflict for themselves. But with the war primarily an air campaign or involving famously secretive special operators, that access isn’t available. There are no extra seats on the fighter jets for reporters, and the furtive special forces now training Iraqi troops aren’t allowing journalists to join them.
While the U.S. military has discussed embedding reporters, as it did during the invasion of Iraq in 2003, with no major troop presence in Iraq and none in Syria it’s unclear how such an embed would work. The Iraqi military, which is supposed to be leading the fight, has shown no interest in allowing foreign reporters access to its forces.
It’s not just journalists, however, who report difficulty gaining a picture of what’s going on in the conflict. In Congress, legislators who receive classified hearings on the U.S. effort said they, too, didn’t get definitive details on the effects of the air and ground campaign.
During classified briefings for the House Armed Services Committee, the U.S. military “goes through the number of strikes and where they hit, but that doesn’t give you an idea of what the effects are,” Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., told McClatchy. Hunter acknowledged that many members aren’t pushing for more conclusive answers. “You can’t micromanage a war from Congress,” he said.
Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a research center in Washington, suggested that one reason for the lack of information may be the strange alliances that have emerged in the battle against the Islamic State; the Obama administration may not want to draw attention to what Korb called “competing interests.”
“The U.S. is working with the Iranians in Iraq. You’ve got the Shiite militias in control until the Iraqi army is standing. And, of course, in Syria you have our so-called Mideast allies and the U.S. in some ways helping Bashar Assad. I think that is the reason you don’t see as much information coming to the forefront,” he said.
Pentagon officials privately concede that they could release more, and more timely, information. But the problem, they say, ultimately is a lack of a strategy. President Barack Obama said in a White House address Sept. 10 that the goal was to “defeat and destroy” the Islamic State, but the military approach so far is more of a containment policy. Releasing more details about the strikes would expose that divide, critics said privately.
Lauren Squires, a counterterrorism analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, which tracks the anti-Islamic State campaign, said the delay and lack of specificity from the Pentagon had consequences. The cost of less detail is that the American public is lulled into a false sense that not much is happening.
“There is a false sense of distance. Unless there are embedded reporters, there is a distance and less understanding how ubiquitous this group can be,” Squires said, referring to the Islamic State. “Just because we ignore it doesn’t mean the threat will go away.”
The conflicted nature of the strategy was on display earlier this week on Capitol Hill, where Secretary of State John Kerry told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that legislators shouldn’t restrict Obama’s ability to dispatch ground troops to destroy the Islamic State even as he emphasized that the president has said U.S. military forces “will not be deployed to conduct ground combat operations” against the group.
“That does not mean we should pre-emptively bind the hands of the commander in chief – or our commanders in the field – in responding to scenarios and contingencies that are impossible to foresee,” Kerry said.
The lack of official information stands in stark contrast to what happened in previous wars in Iraq. During the Persian Gulf War to push Iraqi troops out of Kuwait, Army Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf Jr. became a household name for his frequent televised briefings. The then-head of U.S. Central Command stood next to easels displaying maps to explain the offensive, and he provided animated narrations of video showing the destruction of Iraqi positions with smart bombs.
During the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, that role fell to Gen. Vincent Brooks, who was the Army’s deputy director of operations at the time and provided daily televised briefings from Qatar. In addition, the military embedded hundreds of reporters and photographers with the invading forces. In Washington, then-Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld briefed weekly from the Pentagon.
In both of those conflicts, as well as the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, reporters could travel independently to report on the impact of American military operations.
But with Western journalists targeted for kidnapping and death by the Islamic State, it’s become nearly impossible for them to cover the conflict in Iraq safely, and most news organizations quit sending people to Syria long ago.
At Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Fla., officials say they’re trying to be as transparent as possible. But they say full transparency is impossible in explaining the actions not just of American forces but also those of the more than 60 nations the U.S. says are part of the anti-Islamic State coalition.
Many of those 60 members aren’t eager to boast about their roles, said Air Force Col. Patrick Ryder, a Central Command spokesman. That’s one reason Central Command no longer announces when non-U.S. aircraft take part in a mission, something it did routinely in August and September.
“It has been our policy and our intent to be as transparent as possible, recognizing we have to protect operational security and take partner-nation sensitivity into account,” Ryder said. “Just because we don’t put it in the news release doesn’t mean we don’t tell reporters” who call and ask for more details.
The military also has stopped providing details about the days and times of strikes and their targets. Ryder said the military made the change, after several weeks of including such information, for fear that the releases might become a source of intelligence for the Islamic State. “If we provide those kind of operational details, over time our adversaries can aggregate information and do trend analysis,” he said.
Ryder said the reduction in the frequency of airstrike summaries from daily to three times a week last month was in part a response to staffing shortages. He defended the less-frequent releases by noting that daily airstrike reports are unusual historically. They seem important now only because there are no ground forces involved in the fighting. Previously, an air campaign and special operations were considered support for a larger ground force, not the main event of a conflict.
Last week, the military changed responsibility for producing news releases on operations from Central Command to the Combined Joint Task Force, based in the Middle East. Ryder acknowledged that the new releases lack any specifics that could be used to track the progress of the war.
A release from Dec. 5 is typical of what the military now makes public about the anti-Islamic State campaign: In Syria, over a three-day period “U.S. and partner nations” conducted “14 airstrikes near Kobani, destroying four ISIL fighting positions, three ISIL-occupied buildings, two ISIL staging areas, two ISIL tanks, a motorcycle, a mortar, and struck eight tactical ISIL units and two ISIL fighting positions. Near . . . Raqqa, an airstrike struck an electronic warfare garrison.” ISIL is the government’s preferred acronym for the Islamic State.
Compare that with a more detailed November news release from the United Kingdom describing its air force’s activities over Iraq.
“On Thursday evening, Kurdish peshmerga reported coming under fire from a dug-in machine-gun position,” the release read. “An RAF (Royal Air Force) Reaper remotely piloted air system succeeded in locating the ISIL position, and attacked it with a Hellfire missile. The crew operating the Reaper then identified further ISIL positions, allowing another coalition aircraft to conduct an attack. Before the end of its patrol, the Reaper crew used another Hellfire to engage an ISIL checkpoint set up to control a road.”
On Monday, in an apparent effort to be more transparent, Central Command released aerial video of airstrikes conducted two weeks ago. But again there were few details about the times and purposes of the strikes.