On 8 August last year, Barack Obama authorised airstrikes against Daesh targets in Iraq. He said that it would only involve "targeted airstrikes to protect our American personnel, and a humanitarian effort to help save thousands of Iraqi civilians who are trapped on a mountain without food and water and facing almost certain death." In the intervening year, the scope of the operation has expanded significantly, with around 6,000 strikes against Daesh targets taking place in Iraq and Syria. The US strategy includes bombing as well as training for local forces, but rules out a ground invasion. (Although there are, in fact, around 3,500 American soldiers in Iraq, they are not fighting.)
Billions of dollars have been spent, with reportedly more than 10,000 extremist fighters killed. Despite all this, however, American intelligence agencies do not believe that Daesh is fundamentally any weaker than it was when the bombing campaign began. According to the news agency AFP, intelligence officials see the overall situation as a strategic stalemate. Daesh is well-funded and well-organised. With thousands of people travelling from all over the world to sign up, it is able to replace its ranks with foreign jihadis at the same speed as the US is killing its fighters. Intelligence estimates put the group's total numbers at 20,000-30,000, which is around the same as last August. Its international reach has also increased, with offshoots of the group establishing themselves in Libya, the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt and in Afghanistan.
The picture is not entirely bleak. According to a research group, Daesh lost around 10 per cent of the territory it had gained within the first six months of the operation; there have been some inroads made by the US-led coalition and its Syrian and Kurdish allies on the ground. Some American officials have expressed optimism publically, saying that the campaign has put the group on the defensive. Before the US-led campaign began, Daesh had enjoyed a period when it seized land across Iraq practically unopposed. Now, they say, it has to operate in the shadows, and its ability to mount large scale attacks has been curtailed. Others point to the forthcoming operation to take back the city of Ramadi, which fell to Daesh in May. This will be led by the newly-trained Iraqi forces, and is seen as a potential turning point in the campaign.
The fact remains, though, that a year on, not much has changed, and Daesh is clearly not facing imminent defeat. Hawkish commentators – and some army officials – blame an excess of caution in the bombing campaign. The White House, keen to avoid the perception of waging another war in Iraq so soon after the last, direly unpopular conflict, is desperate to avoid civilian casualties. According to US statistics, only two civilians have been killed; independent estimates put it closer to 500. The American public radio station NPR quoted an army official saying that the airstrikes had been "anaemic". On the other hand, those who opposed the campaign from the outset – including many on the left – argue that the failure of intervention is evidence that repeated bombing of the Middle East simply does not bring peace.
Of course, the reality is complex. On one level, it is true that war is always messy, and that it takes time; some US officials have told journalists that it will take two more years for Daesh to be defeated. However, there is no denying that there have been obvious failures. One is the plan to train "moderate" Syrian rebels to fight Daesh on the ground. In practice, only 60 people have made it through America's strict vetting process. In a conflict as tangled as the Syrian one, it is difficult to find someone with a totally clean record, and the US does not want to stand accused – again – of putting weaponry in the hands of the wrong people. This is particularly farcical given the fact that America and its allies have been quietly funding some rebel groups in Syria for several years already, but it is just one example of the ground situation being far too complicated to be solved simply by an influx of money and bombs.
Another issue is the ongoing political turmoil in Iraq and its role in encouraging sectarian tension. Part of the reason that Daesh was able to secure its position in certain areas was because Sunni tribesmen, disillusioned with the Shia-led government after years of disenfranchisement, did not fight against it. In August 2014, there was no doubt that the Iraqi army — floundering after years of systematic corruption — needed foreign assistance, but social factors cannot be altered with such intervention.
These issues cannot be solved by simply increasing the number of airstrikes; those disillusioned segments of the population in Iraq will hardly be brought onside if their compatriots start dying in large numbers. The US-led coalition set out with the promise of a targeted campaign, but it seems that once again, America has wandered into a conflict with no clear end in sight.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.