NYT: After six weeks of U.S. airstrikes, ISIS has "scarcely budged"

Turns out you need an effective force on the ground too during an air campaign if you want to reclaim territory held by an enemy. We don’t have one. Yet?

If the Iraqi army can’t dislodge ISIS after eight years of training and untold billions in U.S. funding and weapons, how likely is it that 5,000 hastily trained “moderate” Syrian rebels are going to do it?

After six weeks of American airstrikes, the Iraqi government’s forces have scarcely budged Sunni extremists of the Islamic State from their hold on more than a quarter of the country, in part because many critical Sunni tribes remain on the sidelines…

Behind the government’s struggles on the battlefield is the absence or resistance of many of the Sunni Muslim tribes that all sides say will play the decisive role in the course of the fight — presenting a slow start for the centerpiece of President Obama’s plan to drive out the militants…

Sunni tribal leaders said they were already disappointed by [new Iraq prime minister Haider al-]Abadi, who has been hailed by President Obama as the face of a more inclusive government. They said that the military had not lived up to a pledge by the prime minister to discontinue shelling civilian areas in the battle against the Islamic State — an accusation that could not be confirmed. They also complained that the government had done nothing to reform abusive security forces, and that it continued to give a free hand to Iranian-backed Shiite militias whom Sunnis accuse of arbitrary killings.

“Hundreds of poor people are in prison without being convicted, and today we have the militias as well killing our people, while the military is bombing our cities with barrel bombs and random missiles,” Shiekh Bajjari said. “If we ever put down our weapons, the militias would come over and kill us all.”

How do you launch a new Sunni “Awakening” to push the jihadis out of Anbar province without a U.S. peacekeeping force in place to guarantee Anbar’s security? The last time we tried this, seven years ago, Petraeus could reassure tribal chiefs that Maliki wouldn’t unleash the Shiite hounds on them if they got rid of their Al Qaeda “protectors.” The Americans would stop him. Same with Iraq’s other religious minority. I know I quoted this bit from Dexter Filkins a few weeks ago but it bears repeating:

“We used to restrain Maliki all the time,” Lieutenant General Michael Barbero, the deputy commander in Iraq until January, 2011, told me. “If Maliki was getting ready to send tanks to confront the Kurds, we would tell him and his officials, ‘We will physically block you from moving if you try to do that.’ ” Barbero was angry at the White House for not pushing harder for [a Status of Forces] agreement. “You just had this policy vacuum and this apathy,” he said. “Now we have no leverage in Iraq. Without any troops there, we’re just another group of guys.” There is no longer anyone who can serve as a referee, he said, adding, “Everything that has happened there was not just predictable—we predicted it.”

Maliki’s gone now — but so are 120,000 U.S. troops, with nothing at the moment to stop Shiite militias from overrunning Sunni territory once ISIS has been ousted except the good word of Maliki’s successor, Abadi. If you were an Iraqi Sunni, which side would you rather take your chances with? The animals in ISIS who’ll kill everyone except Sunnis who take care to follow shari’a law or the animals in Hezbollah and other Iranian-backed Shiite death squads who are itching to kill devout and non-devout Sunnis alike? Maybe some of this mistrust will melt away if Abadi reaches out to Sunni chieftains — the Times quotes one who says things are improving — but what sort of timeline that would mean, I have no idea. But it seems hard to believe that Anbaris would rebel against ISIS without assurances that some sort of infantry prophylaxis will take the group’s place in guaranteeing to keep the Shiites out. Any volunteers for that? Sunni peacekeepers from Saudi Arabia and Jordan would be one option, but that might make things worse rather than better as Iran won’t like having the Saudis so close to Baghdad.

Any other volunteers? I bet John McCain has some ideas.