WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is preparing to carry out a campaign against the Islamic State that may take three years to complete — requiring a sustained effort that could last until after President Barack Obama has left office, according to senior administration officials.
The first phase, an air campaign with nearly 145 airstrikes in the past month, is already underway to protect ethnic and religious minorities and U.S. diplomatic, intelligence and military personnel, and their facilities, as well as to begin rolling back Islamic State gains in northern and western Iraq.
The next phase, which would begin sometime after Iraq forms a more inclusive government, scheduled this week, is expected to involve an intensified effort to train, advise or equip the Iraqi military, Kurdish fighters and possibly members of Sunni tribes.
The final, toughest and most politically controversial phase of the operation — destroying the terrorist army in its sanctuary inside Syria — might not be completed until the next administration. Indeed, some Pentagon planners envision a military campaign lasting at least 36 months.
Obama will use a speech to the nation Wednesday to make his case for launching a U.S.-led offensive against Sunni militants gaining ground in the Middle East, seeking to rally support for a broad military mission while reassuring the public he is not plunging U.S. forces into another Iraq War.
“What I want people to understand,” Obama said in an interview with NBC’s “Meet the Press” that was broadcast Sunday, “is that over the course of months, we are going to be able to not just blunt the momentum” of the militants. “We are going to systematically degrade their capabilities; we’re going to shrink the territory that they control; and, ultimately, we’re going to defeat them,” he added.
The military campaign Obama is preparing has no obvious precedent. Unlike U.S. counterterrorism operations in Yemen and Pakistan, it is not expected to be limited to drone strikes against militant leaders. Unlike the war in Afghanistan, it will not include the use of ground troops, which Obama has ruled out.
Unlike the Kosovo war that President Bill Clinton and NATO nations waged in 1999, it will not be compressed into an intensive 78-day tactical and strategic air campaign.
And unlike the air campaign that toppled the Libyan leader, Moammar Gadhafi, in 2011, the Obama administration is no longer “leading from behind,” but plans to play the central role in building a coalition to counter the Islamic State.
“We have the ability to destroy ISIL,” Secretary of State John Kerry said last week at the NATO summit meeting in Wales, using an alternative name for the militant group. “It may take a year, it may take two years, it may take three years. But we’re determined it has to happen.”