Despite heavy US airstrikes, IS threat persists

Washington: In measuring progress in the American-led air war against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, numbers tell one story but results tell another.

Fighter jets, bombers, attack planes and drones are dropping an average of 2,228 bombs per month on targets ranging from training camps and machine gun positions to oil facilities and weapons shacks.

The Pentagon says it doesn’t do body counts, but the attacks are believed to have killed upward of 20,000 IS fighters. The US price tag: USD 5 billion since August 2014, an average of USD 11.1 million each day.

The bombing has damaged or destroyed hundreds of military vehicles (including American tanks surrendered by Iraqi soldiers), thousands of buildings, hundreds of pieces of oil infrastructure and thousands of fighting positions, among other targets, according to US Central Command figures.

This sounds like a pummeling designed to bury an enemy, particularly one facing the military might and technological power of the United States.

But what has been the result? In a word, stalemate, although US military officials say they see the tide gradually turning in their favour.

The key word is “gradually.” The administration has said from the start that dealing a lasting defeat to IS will take years, that a pell-mell military approach will not work because IS is not a conventional army. But in the aftermath of the Paris terrorist attacks many are asking why the US is not in a bigger hurry.

President Barack Obama says he sees encouraging progress. On Monday he pointed to the liberation this month of Sinjar in northwestern Iraq by Iraqi Kurdish forces, the encirclement of IS-held Ramadi and the severing of a key highway serving as a supply route for Islamic State fighters between the northern Iraqi city of Mosul and the militant’s self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa in Syria.

A key Iraqi oil refinery also has been taken from the militants.

And yet, as the Paris attacks showed, the group is now acting on global ambitions. It has withstood the aerial pounding by US and coalition warplanes, defended its core territories and apparently used its resiliency and social media savvy to replenish its ranks as quickly as they are reduced.

How has it managed this?

The answer lies partly in the gradualist US military approach. Instead of bombing every target in sight and sending a US ground invasion force, Obama has chosen to use air power more discriminately to chip away at the Islamic State, avoiding targets where civilians are endangered.

And rather than sending US ground combat troops, he is waiting for the emergence of local fighters who can do the job.