The Islamic State holds just about the same number of towns in Iraq today as it did two months ago, when the U.S. began a bombing campaign to whittle down the terrorist army and support Iraqi ground troops trying to retake territory.
More troubling, analysts say, is that the Islamic State, also known by the acronyms ISIS and ISIL, is ramping up what appear to be operations designed to one day invade Baghdad.
Its objective is to take the international airport and begin conquering the capital, section by section. The Islamic State is continuing its urban attacks with car bombs, some of which have been detonated by foreign suicide bombers.
The Pentagon is not openly confident that the Iraqi Security Forces will hold Baghdad. A spokesman has declined to predict that the sprawling city will stay in government control.
The 2-month-old air campaign can be viewed in two ways. On one hand, the U.S. coalition strikes have slowed and, in some cases, stopped the Islamic State’s advances. On the other hand, they have done little to achieve the ultimate goal of breaking the terrorists’ grip on Mosul, Tal Afar, Fallujah and more than 10 other towns in northern and western Iraq.
The Islamic State has captured large swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria and has declared itself a caliphate.
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One Iraq War veteran said the bombing has been falling short.
“I judge the bombing, quite frankly, to the strategic aims in Iraq being two objectives,” said retired Army Lt. Gen. James Dubik, who supervised the training of Iraqi forces during the 2007 U.S. troop surge. “Restore the sovereign border of Iraq and, two, eliminate ISIS as a threat to the sovereignty of Iraq. And they have certainly not done anything to those aims.”
Others see a positive side. Slowing the Islamic State’s advances “shows that we have been successful with the easier, first stage,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a military analyst at the Brookings Institution. “The hard part, as predicted, is taking territory back. Air power can’t, won’t do it.”
In Iraq on Sunday, the Islamic State publicly killed six Iraqi soldiers captured in western Anbar province, where the terrorists continue to advance despite the expanding U.S.-led campaign of airstrikes, residents told The Associated Press.
In Syria, the terrorist army shelled the beleaguered Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani, near the border with Turkey, as part of its weekslong offensive against the town and surrounding villages that has forced 160,000 people to flee across the border.
Analysts for the Institute for the Study of War regularly publish a map titled “Control of Terrain in Iraq,” which uses color codes to designate who controls what, and what remains up for grabs.
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It is noteworthy how similar the map of Aug. 10, when the air campaign began, is with the one published Friday, two months later. It paints the picture of an entrenched Islamic State that is still threatening government-held territory in Iraq.
The August map showed the terrorist group in control of 14 Iraqi towns, plus the Mosul Dam, which coalition forces later retook. The latest map shows the Islamic State group in control of 13 towns. A collection of villages east of Mosul has gone from Islamic State domination to “contested” — not a significant development in more than two months of bombings.
The Islamic State’s main target is Baghdad. Scenes of a U.S. evacuation would be a major battlefield and public relations victory for the al Qaeda spinoff group and its brutal, homicidal methods.
Mr. Dubik, the retired general who is now an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, expressed worry that the Islamic State is setting the stage for an invasion by systematically knocking off Iraqi troops while staying below the radar so as not to attract airstrikes.
“I don’t think there is immediate danger of portions of Baghdad falling right now,” he said. “But I think they are trying to set the conditions to try to control parts of Baghdad. The Iraqi forces are not doing as well as we expect them to in and around Baghdad.”
Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby, press secretary to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, has defended the air war strategy steadfastly as just one piece of a larger plan to degrade and then destroy the Islamic State.
One almost immediate effect is that the Islamic State is no longer free to move around Iraq as it did in June and July, when fighters swept into northern Iraq from Syria and captured about a dozen towns.
“They, not surprisingly, have gotten better at concealment,” Adm. Kirby said. “Before the airstrikes happened, they pretty much had free reign. They don’t have that free reign anymore, because they know we’re watching from the air.”
“They have dispersed,” he said. “Whereas before they were more structurally cohesive in certain places, almost acting like, in some ways, an army. We’ve not given them credit for being an army, of course, but we have talked about the military-type organizations and skills that they had been developing.”
Asked last week whether the Iraqi army can hold Baghdad, Adm. Kirby was noncommittal.
“There’s a lot of things I’m not good at,” he said. “One of them is predicting the future. The Iraqi Security Forces have been continuing to stiffen their defense around the city. We believe that they’ve done a good job with that. They’ll continue to focus on it.”
Adm. Kirby also disclosed that the Pentagon, two months into the anti-Islamic State operation, does plan to give it a name, as is procedure for all significant U.S. military campaigns.
Pentagon insiders have been telling reporters that President Obama does not want an operational name because he then would be personally tied to his own initiated war. He depicted himself as a president who ends wars, not starts them.
“I can tell you that there is an effort underway to consider a potential name for this operation,” Adm. Kirby said.
Giving it a distinct name — “Operation” — would make military personnel eligible for a campaign ribbon.