Newspaper article International New York Times

U.S. Terror Strategy Hits Wall ; ISIS' Military Advance Lays Bare the Limitations of White House Policy

Newspaper article International New York Times

U.S. Terror Strategy Hits Wall ; ISIS' Military Advance Lays Bare the Limitations of White House Policy

Article excerpt

The seizing of large parts of Iraq by Sunni militants has laid bare the limitations of a terrorism policy that relies on the cooperation of partners with limited capacities.

Speaking at West Point in May, President Obama laid out a blueprint for fighting terrorism that relies less on American soldiers, like the cadets in his audience that day, and more on training troops in countries where those threats had taken root.

But this indirect approach, intended to avoid costly, bloody wars like the one the United States waged in Iraq, immediately collided with reality, when a lethal jihadi insurgency swept across the same Iraqi battlefields where thousands of Americans had lost their lives.

The seizing of large parts of Iraq by Sunni militants stunned the White House and has laid bare the limitations of a policy that depends on the cooperation of often balky and overmatched partners.

While the militants, from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, have moved swiftly to establish a caliphate from eastern Syria to central Iraq, the White House is struggling to repel them with measures that administration officials concede will take months or longer to be effective. At West Point, Mr. Obama spoke hopefully of a "network of partnerships from South Asia to the Sahel." The reality, on chaotic display in Iraq, is likely to be far messier. The United States, constrained by a war-weary public, will have to rely on a constantly shifting cast of surrogates to confront the threats it once took on largely by itself -- a trade-off that will require patience.

Last week, Mr. Obama announced a plan to spend $500 million to train and equip rebels in Syria. But the Pentagon has only begun detailed planning for the program, and officials said it would be months, or even more than a year, before the fighters would be battle-ready.

"The Islamic State's resources are increasing faster than the appropriations process back in Washington," said Robert S. Ford, the former American ambassador to Syria who is now a resident scholar at the Middle East Institute.

In Iraq, the Pentagon faces months of work to rebuild the shattered Iraqi security forces, which it trained over a decade at a cost of $25 billion. The administration's efforts to press the Iraqis to fend off the militants by forming an inclusive national government have been bogged down by the country's deep-rooted sectarian feuds.

White House officials acknowledged it would take time to execute Mr. Obama's policy, but pointed to other parts of the Middle East where they said the United States had deployed a rapid-response force of drones, special forces and intelligence assets.

"Building capable partners is clearly the long-term solution," said Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser. "But as we've shown in places like Yemen and Somalia, if we have to fill gaps with U.S. direct action against a specific terrorist threat, we are prepared to do so."

Mr. Obama has not ruled out targeted airstrikes on militant positions in either Iraq or Syria. But that could raise political problems with a skeptical Congress and a wary American public, and the efficacy of strikes is uncertain, given how the ISIS fighters have intermingled with other Sunni militants who oppose the government. …

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