A senior official in President Barack Obama’s administration says that while the U.S.-led coalition has made some progress in the fight against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, a “very, very long road” lies ahead.
The official commented in a Thursday background briefing, which followed talks this month with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.
As the Iraqi prime minister met with Obama and other officials in Washington, the jihadist group stepped up attacks near Ramadi in Iraq's western Anbar province. The city is near an air base used by U.S. and coalition forces to train Iraqi troops.
The senior administration official described the effort to defeat Islamic State, also known as ISIL, as a “multiyear campaign.”
“ISIL remains a very adaptive enemy. They are going to do things that surprise everybody,” the official said.
The official said that in recent days, Iraqi and coalition forces have made some progress in pushing back militant positions in the Ramadi area, partly as a result of better-trained Iraqi forces.
“We are seeing Iraqis able to organize with professionalism and capacity that was unimaginable six months ago,” the official said.
While there is progress on some fronts, there is growing concern about attacks carried out by Islamic State-affiliated militants in other countries.
In a graphic video posted online Sunday, the group claimed it had massacred 30 Ethiopian Christians in Libya. In a similar video released in February, the Islamic State said it had murdered Egyptian Christians.
The U.S. official said there is “a lot of discussion” within the coalition about what the Islamic State calls its distant affiliates.
“Just because someone raises a flag and puts a video out does not mean they are necessarily ISIL,” the official said.
However, the U.S. and its allies may eventually need an expanded campaign to deal with Islamic State affiliates outside Iraq and Syria, said analyst David Pollock of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
In particular, he said Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have expressed a willingness to launch a military campaign against the Islamic State and other jihadi groups in Libya but the U.S. discouraged this effort and, instead, urged the countries to support political dialogue.
Not a "realistic strategy"?
“I think we are past the point where that is a realistic strategy,” said Pollock. “It is going to take military force to help stabilize Libya.”
There is also concern about an Islamic State presence in Afghanistan.
Last week, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said the group had claimed responsibility for a bombing in Jalalabad that killed at least 35 people.
Pollock said violence by Islamic State affiliates in Afghanistan is a different scenario from the group’s attacks in Libya. “What is happening in Afghanistan is that this is a sideshow, as tragic as it may be, to the larger conflict between the Taliban and other fundamentalist groups,” he said.
Pollock said that overall, the level of popular support among Sunnis and Shi’ites for the Islamic State or other militant groups is very low. But he added that it is extremely difficult to dislodge these militants once they intimidate local populations.