WASHINGTON — Ten weeks into its war against Islamic State extremists, the Pentagon is settling in for the long haul, short on big early successes but still banking on enlisting Syrians and Iraqis to fight the ground war so that U.S. troops won't have to.
The U.S. general overseeing the campaign on Friday predicted that the jihadists will be "much degraded" by airstrikes a year from now, in part because he is focusing attacks on those resources that enable IS to sustain itself and resupply its fighters.
On Friday, for example, the U.S. military said one of its six airstrikes overnight in Syria hit several IS petroleum storage tanks and a pumping station — sites that are central to the militants' ability to resupply their forces and generate revenue. Likewise, it said two coalition airstrikes in Iraq damaged or destroyed IS military targets near the contested town of Beiji, home of Iraq's largest oil refinery.
In his first public overview of the campaign he leads from the Florida headquarters of U.S. Central Command, Army Gen. Lloyd Austin cautioned against expecting quick progress. He said he cannot predict how long it will take to right a wobbly Iraqi army and build a viable opposition ground force in Syria.
"The campaign to destroy ISIL will take time, and there will be occasional setbacks along the way," Austin told a Pentagon news conference, "particularly in these early stages of the campaign as we coach and mentor a force (in Iraq) that is actively working to regenerate capability after years of neglect and poor leadership."
While hammering the jihadists daily from the air, the U.S. military is talking of a years-long effort — one that will require more than aerial bombardment, will show results only gradually and may eventually call for a more aggressive use of U.S. military advisers in Iraq.
"This isn't going to get solved through 18 airstrikes around a particular town in a particular place in Syria. It's going to take a long time," the Pentagon press secretary, Rear Adm. John Kirby, said Thursday, referring to a recent concentration of American airstrikes on the Syrian city of Kobani, near the Turkish border.
That is one reason why the Pentagon is preparing to set up a more formally organized command structure, known in military parlance as a joint task force, to lead and coordinate the campaign from a forward headquarters, perhaps in Kuwait. On Wednesday it formally named the campaign "Operation Inherent Resolve."
As of Thursday the U.S. had launched nearly 300 airstrikes in Iraq and nearly 200 in Syria, and allies had tallied fewer than 100, according to Central Command. Those figures don't capture the full scope of the effort because many airstrikes launch multiple bombs on multiple targets. Central Command said that as of Wednesday, U.S. and partner-nation air forces had dropped nearly 1,400 munitions.
Officials say the strikes have squeezed IS and slowed its battlefield momentum. More specifically, they claim they have destroyed an array of Islamic State military targets: command posts, sniper positions, artillery guns, armed trucks, tanks, mortar positions, buildings, mobile oil refineries and more. The Pentagon has shied from providing a body count, but Kirby said several hundred IS fighters have been killed in Kobani alone in recent days.
Yet the militants are making gains in some parts of Iraq, particular in Sunni-dominated Anbar province, even as they stall or retrench in other areas. At times they have appeared within reach of taking control of Syria's Kobani. Baghdad is not believed to be in imminent danger of falling but it is "certainly in their sights," Kirby said.
Some U.S. analysts call Obama's approach overly cautious, given the comparatively small number of airstrikes launched thus far and the president's refusal to involve U.S. soldiers more directly in the ground war.
Calling it an "unserious air war," analysts Mark Gunzinger and John Stillion of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments wrote this week on the center's website, "In the end, no matter the reason, the timorous use of air power against Islamic State fighters in Iraq and Syria is unlikely to reduce the territory under their control, curb the brutal murder of innocent civilians or prevent the creation of a sanctuary for an enemy that has sworn to continue its fight on a more global scale."
Others take a more approving view.
"The air war is really degrading their infrastructure," said Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, who just returned from a trip that included a briefing at the U.S. air operation center at al-Udeid air base in Qatar.
"At some point in the next several months, they are not going to have tanks, they are not going have (U.S.-made mine-resistant vehicles), they are not going have the stuff that they stole from the Iraqis. They are going to have AK-47s," he said, and at that point Iraqi and U.S.-trained Syrian opposition fighters can make inroads.
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