U.S. forces carrying out airstrikes against Islamic militants in northern Iraq will remain focused on relieving the threat against refugees and the Kurdish city of Irbil instead of degrading the strength of the group known as the Islamic State, a Pentagon official said Monday.
"There are no plans to expand the air campaign," said Lt. Gen. William Mayville, the director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "We are gripped by the immediacy of the crisis and our focus right now is to provide immediate relief to those who are suffering," he said.
Those airstrikes could last indefinitely, according to a senior officer who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the operation.
However, blunting the momentum of the Islamic State's fighters, the officer said, would require special operators on the ground, a significant escalation that some members of Congress are already warning against.
The humanitarian mission and airstrikes to protect refugees and Irbil are sustainable for weeks or longer, the officer said. Dealing a significant blow to the Islamic State would require U.S. special operators on the ground, because these troops can call in airstrikes in close proximity to ground forces, such as the Kurdish peshmerga forces, while keeping them safe.
Ground forces could then secure the gains and keep Islamic State fighters at bay.
During a news conference Monday, Mayville said any thought of using U.S. ground troops is "a little too speculative for me." There are no current plans to use U.S. ground troops, he said.
President Obama's announcement Thursday that the United States would start air operations in Iraq and subsequent comments from him and administration officials made the distinction between ground and combat troops.
"We have teams on the ground in both Baghdad and Irbil who are already coordinating through our joint operations centers," said an administration official. "We have said that we are going to direct additional resources to both the Iraqi Security Forces, and to the Peshmerga. And we've also made clear that after the Iraqis form a government, we stand prepared to work with other partners in the region in providing additional support — for instance additional resources and equipment to the Iraqis as they go on the offensive."
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the record about U.S. military plans.
The military officer's assessment about the need for forward air observers makes sense, said Michael O'Hanlon, a military analyst at the Brookings Institution.
Stopping the group's infiltration into Kurd-controlled areas is the relatively easier task, O'Hanlon said. Pushing the Islamic State from cities it controls, such as Mosul, will require working closer with the Iraqi military. Before that can happen, Iraq must form a more inclusive, effective government.
Rolling back the Islamic State could require up to 15,000 U.S. troops, said retired Army colonel Peter Mansoor, the executive officer to General David Petraeus during the 2007 surge in Iraq and now a professor of military history at Ohio State University.
"You can't just snap your fingers and make it go away," Mansoor said.
The geography in the region is well suited to U.S. air power. The desert area surrounding the 4,000-foot ridge line is open territory, and hostile Islamic State ISIL force are relatively easy to spot and kill, the officer said. Meantime, the cracks and crevices of the mountain provide adequate cover for the refugees.
The Pentagon is relying on F/A-18 warplanes for the bombing runs from the USS George H.W. Bush because it operates in international waters, the officer said. Land-based attack aircraft require the permission of the host country if they are to be used in combat, and the green light for those operations can be difficult to obtain.
Predator drones are also being used to fire Hellfire missiles at Islamic State targets. Iraq has allowed drones and other surveillance aircraft to be used from bases there.
There are about 650 troops on the ground in Iraq now. They are protecting the Baghdad airport, the U.S. embassy there and training Iraqi special forces.
Obama ordered airstrikes when it became apparent that Islamic State rebels were advancing on Irbil where there is a U.S. consulate and American personnel. The strikes are intended to protect religious minorities holed up on the mountain and threatened by Islamic State.
Getting food, water and supplies to the refugees by air, on a craggy mountain, has required sophisticated parachute operations by Air Force C-17 and C-130 cargo planes, the officer said.