WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Obama administration is grappling with how to bridge the gap between its increasingly dire assessment of the threat posed by the Islamic State group and the limited air campaign it has so far undertaken.
The Pentagon said Wednesday that airdrops of food and water, airstrikes on militants and other efforts had helped dramatically improve the plight of thousands of people sheltering on a bleak mountaintop in northern Iraq, making an urgent rescue effort unlikely.
After the Pentagon landed its first team of special forces and aid workers atop Mount Sinjar, they returned with a report saying conditions were less desperate than White House officials had indicated earlier in the day.
Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, said the team found far fewer Yazidi refugees than previously feared because thousands had managed to escape each night over the last several days. Those who remain, he said, “are in better condition than previously believed” and have access to food, water and other supplies dropped by U.S., British and Iraqi planes.
“Based on this assessment, the interagency has determined that an evacuation mission is far less likely,” he said.
Kirby also cited the impact of U.S. airstrikes on militants with the group Islamic State.
President Barack Obama had been expected to decide within days on Pentagon recommendations for moving thousands of members of the Yazidi religious sect from Mount Sinjar, either by organizing a military airlift or by creating a protected corridor to help them to safety, Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser, said earlier Wednesday.
Any rescue operation would probably require temporarily inserting U.S. troops, who would be authorized to defend themselves if attacked by the Islamic State, the heavily armed al-Qaida breakaway faction that has been targeted by U.S. airstrikes since Friday.
Military officials, however, acknowledge will air attacks on the militants will not blunt the group’s momentum.
For months, administration officials have been divided about the threat posed by the Islamic State as it seized parts of Syria and advanced on towns in Iraq. Now, amid new intelligence about its growing strength, a consensus is forming that the group presents an unacceptable terrorism risk to the United States and its allies.
At issue is whether President Barack Obama, elected on a platform of ending the Iraq war, will heed calls for a campaign to contain or destroy the Islamic State, an undertaking that could dominate U.S. foreign policy for the remainder of his term.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the group poses “a threat to the civilized world,” while Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., called the Islamic State a “terrorist army” that must be defeated.
But Obama has not used similar language. He has authorized a limited campaign of targeted airstrikes designed to protect refugees and American personnel in the Kurdish region — but not take out the group’s leadership or logistical hubs.
A strategy to destroy the Islamic State would not require large numbers of American ground troops, but it would amount to a significant escalation from the recent air operations, analysts say. It might also require military action in western Syria, where the group has its headquarters in the city of Ar-Raqqah.
Proponents of doing so argue that the Islamic State must be stopped because it will destabilize America’s allies in the region and eventually export terror to Europe and the U.S. Critics of the idea are urging the president just as strongly not to get sucked into another Middle East war, arguing that years of American micromanagement in that region have ended in tears.
Obama himself has said the U.S. “has a strategic interest in pushing back” the Islamic State, but he has also insisted he will not send American combat troops back to war in Iraq. He has not shied away from using targeted military force in other places, such as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, when he decided that terrorists there threatened the U.S.
Smashing the Islamic State, military and intelligence analysts say, would require a sustained campaign of American airstrikes, combined with a U.S.-backed ground force of Sunni tribesmen — the same approach that rooted al-Qaida in Iraq out of the Sunni tribal areas in 2008.
But such a campaign would be “orders of magnitudes more difficult” than Yemen because of how well-armed and well-trained Islamic State fighters are, said Peter Mansoor, a retired army colonel who helped oversee a turnaround in Iraq in 2008.
“We have a mismatch between our goals and our strategy at the present time,” said Mansoor, now a professor at Ohio State. “The goal eventually is to eliminate (the Islamic State), but the president has laid out a very restrained military option which can’t accomplish that goal.”