- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 30, 2015

As President Obama enters his final year in office, the war on terrorism keeps forcing his reluctant hand to deploy the U.S. military in places where he once vowed to withdraw forces or keep America out of the fight entirely.

In Iraq, where Mr. Obama “ended” the war in 2011 by removing all U.S. combat forces to much fanfare, he has redeployed 3,500 American troops to help Baghdad fight the Islamic State group. The vast majority of those troops are serving as advisers and trainers, but some also have been engaged in combat missions.

In Syria, where the president resisted getting involved in the civil war for three years, he has sent up to 50 special operations forces to help local fighters battle the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL. The U.S.-led coalition has carried out thousands of airstrikes against extremist targets and has recently ramped up the bombing of the group’s oil infrastructure.

In Afghanistan, where Mr. Obama pledged to end the war by 2014, he has kept 9,800 U.S. troops to train Afghan forces and conduct counterterrorism raids. With the Taliban, al Qaeda and the Islamic State making gains there this year, Army Gen. John Campbell told USA Today this week that he wants to delay the scheduled reduction of U.S. troops to 5,500 by Jan. 1, 2017, and there is talk of keeping open the massive U.S. base at Bagram.

“My intent would be to keep as much as I could for as long as I could,” Gen. Campbell said.

Mr. Obama won the Democratic nomination and the presidency in 2008 in large part on his promise to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he has said repeatedly that the U.S. can’t win the war on terrorism by occupying countries or waging large-scale ground invasions. But some national security analysts say history will conclude that he allowed Islamist terrorism to fill the power vacuums he helped create in the Middle East.

“His legacy is likely to be permitting al Qaeda and its ISIS offshoot to expand in a much more permissive environment,” said James Phillips, a Middle East analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “By coming into office determined to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he helped create conditions that allowed ISIS to flourish and allowed al Qaeda and the Taliban to make a comeback in Afghanistan.”

Unwanted legacy

The redeployment of troops to Iraq, the rising military involvement in Syria and the prolonged deployment of troops in Afghanistan have caused Obama officials to begin acknowledging that the next president, who takes office in January 2017, likely will be on a war footing against extremist groups.

In the new book “Power Wars” by New York Times reporter Charles Savage, Mr. Obama’s deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, said of the administration’s increasing warlike posture on terrorism, “We may not be able to solve every legacy issue we inherited.”

The public is increasingly critical of Mr. Obama’s handling of terrorism. In a CNN/ORC poll released Monday, 74 percent of Americans, surpassing the previous high of 61 percent in 2007, said they are not satisfied with how the war on terrorism is proceeding.

In the same survey, 40 percent of respondents said terrorists are winning, while 18 percent said the U.S. and its allies are winning. In 2011, 9 percent said the terrorists were winning and 44 percent said the U.S. had the upper hand.

White House aides say the concern is a response to the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California, this fall. But even before the Paris attacks on Nov. 13, there were indications that the public was losing confidence in the president’s handling of the war on terrorism.

A Rasmussen poll in October found that 46 percent of respondents believed the terrorists were winning, while 26 percent said the U.S. had the upper hand — the worst numbers in that poll in more than a decade.

In the wake of the Paris and San Bernardino attacks, the U.S.-led coalition has launched more airstrikes against the Islamic State in Syria and expanded the targeting of the group’s oil resources that fund much of its operations.

“The administration has slowly and incrementally escalated its commitment to defeat ISIS, but the problem is that this has been ad hoc,” Mr. Phillips said. “The administration still has not matched its commitment of resources to the end goal that it seeks.”

Administration officials were able to point to some good news this week: Iraqi Security Forces recaptured the city of Ramadi from the Islamic State. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter called it “a significant step forward in the campaign to defeat this barbaric group and restore Iraq’s territorial sovereignty.”

Mr. Phillips agreed that the development was “an important political and symbolic victory which will raise Iraqi morale and undermine ISIS.” But he said the Iraqi victory in Ramadi needs to be kept in perspective.

“Ramadi is 80 miles from Baghdad, and it’s taken six months for the Iraqi army to accomplish this,” he said. “Although it’s a small step forward, it’s a long way to pushing ISIS out of Iraq.”

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