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ISIS Is No Weaker Than A Year Ago, Officials Say


One year and thousands of airstrikes after the Obama administration decided to take on the self-declared Islamic State, the war is at a stalemate. According to the Associated Press, that's a conclusion of American intelligence agencies. Ken Dilanian is with the Associated Press. And, Ken, the American-led coalition has launched more than 5,000 airstrikes since last year, more than 10,000 ISIS fighters have been killed. So how is this war a stalemate?

KEN DILANIAN: In part because the coalition is operating under very restrictive rules of engagement and a very cautious approach. So U.S. troops are there training local forces, but they're not accompanying them into the fight. U.S. Special Operations Forces are not on the ground directing airstrikes, which makes the airstrikes, frankly, less effective. I mean, they are effective. They're definitely having an impact. Big picture, I mean, it prevented Iraq from collapsing, many analysts believe, and it certainly has prevented ISIS from taking more territory. I mean, they were really on a juggernaut when this thing started. In Syria and their self-declared top capital of Raqqa, our reporting on the ground suggests that the Islamic State is under severe pressure, and they're really beginning to feel the pain. So, you know, we're not saying and the intelligence officials aren't saying that the air campaign isn't going to have an impact. They're just saying that, strategically overall, it's not going to push ISIL out of these safe havens that it's carved out for itself.

RATH: And ISIS has been able to replenish all of those fighters who have been killed?

DILANIAN: Yeah. That's what the intelligence is saying. That basically, you know, they're still attracting a thousand foreign fighters a month from around the Middle East and Europe and other places. And so they're basically able to replenish at a one-for-one rate where, you know, the U.S. is killing thousands of people, but thousands are still pouring in.

RATH: We've seen reports that ISIS has been pushed back in some areas. Has the territory overall been reduced, or is that offset by other gains by ISIS?

DILANIAN: Overall, according to independent analysts, ISIS has lost about 10 percent of the territory it had seized. And in a Sunni city called Tikrit in Iraq, the coalition was able to take that back from ISIS. But another really important Sunni city called Ramadi, which is the provincial - the capital of Anbar Province, the Sunni heartland, fell to ISIS in May. And now that has become sort of the centerpiece for the coalition ground effort. They really want to take back Ramadi.

RATH: Does this stalemate assessment of these intelligence agencies - does that conflict with what President Obama has been saying publicly?

DILANIAN: President Obama's been fairly cautious. But it certainly conflicts with what his special envoy, retired General John Allen, told the forum in Aspen, Colo., last week. He portrayed a very upbeat situation. He said ISIS is losing in Iraq and Syria. That is not what the intelligence officials I'm talking to are saying.

RATH: According to the analysts you spoke with, what have - what are the biggest roadblocks to advancing past a stalemate?

DILANIAN: A credible ground force. You know, and since the Obama administration is not willing to send U.S. ground troops in, there has to be some other option. And right now, the U.S. is trying to train ground forces. But those efforts have been very slow, very incremental. I mean, a Department of Defense training program has produced so far 60 vetted fighters. And that's not going to push thousands of hardened terrorists out of Iraq and Syria.

RATH: So assuming things remain the same, there's not a U.S. commitment of ground troops, at that current pace, how much longer could this fight go on?

DILANIAN: The intelligence analysts I'm talking to are talking about 10 to 15 years at the current pace.

RATH: That's Ken Dilanian with the Associated Press. Ken, thank you.

DILANIAN: Thank for thanks for having me, Arun. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.