Eighty-two percent of registered voters say the Islamic State is a serious threat to the United States, and a plurality – 42 percent – are ready to escalate the fight against the terrorist organization, according to a recent Morning Consult poll.
Last year, the Islamic State launched a blitzkrieg campaign that saw it conquer Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, and Tikrit, a central city just 80 miles from the capital, Baghdad. Stunned, demoralized and in administrative shambles, the Iraqi military was unable to recapture the lost territory.
When the Islamic State moved on the Kurdish capital of Erbil in northern Iraq in August last year, U.S. forces launched airstrikes to halt its advance. Obama then authorized the deployment of military advisors to help rebuild the shattered Iraqi security forces.
The additional deployment will bring the total number of U.S. troops in Iraq to 3,550, spread across five training bases. Elissa Slotkin, assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, said in a conference call with reporters Wednesday that the troops will focus on helping Iraqis plan for, coordinate and sustain the fight to take back Ramadi, the recently seized capital of Iraq’s restive Anbar Province.
However, Slotkin said, they will not join the Iraqis in combat.
Of those lawmakers who criticize Obama’s strategy, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) are virtually alone in their repeated and strident calls for the deployment of combat troops. Both senators opposed the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq in 2011, and both criticized Obama for failing to negotiate an extension to the Status of Forces Agreement that would have allowed a continued presence for American troops.
“To defeat a determined enemy like ISIL you have to have the capability and the will,” Graham said in a statement yesterday. “President Obama is not providing the capability and he doesn’t have the will.”
Most voters agree: 51 percent said the airstrikes and training assistance are proving ineffective in turning the tide against the Islamic State, compared with 37 percent who said they were effective. Republicans are more likely than Democrats, by 17 percentage points, to criticize the current efforts.
The Islamic State’s territory stretches from Raqqa in Syria, through Mosul in northern Iraq, and down to the cities and towns that hug the Euphrates River in Iraq’s western desert. Iraqi forces, working with Iranian-backed militias, managed to retake Tikrit in a spring offensive. Weeks later, however, Islamic State fighters in Ramadi hit Iraqi positions with an unprecedented car-bomb attack, routing the defenders and effectively wresting away control of western Iraq.
Brett McGurk, deputy assistant secretary for near-eastern affairs at the Department of State, pointed out a notable exception to the Islamic State’s dominance during Wednesday’s conference call: the towns around Al-Asad air base, where U.S. troops train their Iraqi counterparts while launching airstrikes.
Jeff Prescott, the National Security Council’s senior director for Iran, Iraq, Syria and the Gulf States, said on the call that U.S. forces have trained roughly 9,000 Iraqis to date, with 3,100 currently in training.
Meanwhile, the U.S. has expedited the delivery of arms and supplies to Iraqi security forces, Ben Rhodes, deputy national security advisor, told reporters on Wednesday. He said those arms included AT-4 anti-tank rockets, which have proven effective against car bombs.
McCain did not respond to requests for comment.
The Morning Consult poll was conducted among a national sample of 2,173 registered voters between May 29 and 31 with a margin of error of plus or minus 2 percentage points.