The CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that the Obama administration bomb campaign launched last year against the Islamic State has yielded no perceivable degradation of the terrorist organization’s forces.
The military campaign has prevented Iraq’s collapse and put the Islamic State under increasing pressure in northern Syria, particularly squeezing its self-proclaimed capital in Raqqa. But intelligence analysts see the overall situation as a strategic stalemate: The Islamic State remains a well-funded extremist army able to replenish its ranks with foreign jihadis as quickly as the U.S. can eliminate them. Meanwhile, the group has expanded to other countries, including Libya, Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and Afghanistan.
An unnamed defense official, who was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter, admitted that U.S. intelligence has "seen no meaningful degradation in their numbers."
U.S. intelligence officials estimate that the Islamic State (IS, also known as ISIL or ISIS) remains between 20,000 and 30,000 fighters strong.
Nevertheless, President Obama spoke earlier this month on the "progress" the United States has witnessed after hitting IS in Iraq and Syria with thousands of air strikes.
John Allen, the retired Marine general tasked with developing the campaign against IS, said, "ISIS is losing" at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado last week. At the same event, FBI director James Comey called IS a "the threat that we’re worrying about in the homeland most of all."
The Obama administration strategy to thwart IS involves bombing militants and training Syrian and Kurdish fighters on the ground. It bars U.S. troops from engaging in combat with the Islamic State or launching air strikes from the ground.
Only 60 Syrian insurgents have received appropriate training and have been vetted by the United States to fight the Islamic State. Still, the United States is planning to rely on Syrian rebels–many of whom have connections to Islamic militant groups and are more concerned with toppling Bashar al-Assad’s regime–to secure an IS "safe zone" along the Syrian-Turkish border.
Despite the U.S. campaign, the Islamic State has exhibited signs of transforming into a functional state, issuing identification cards and dispersing fishing guidelines in the areas of Syria and Iraq that it controls.
John E. McLaughlin, who served as deputy director of the CIA between 2000 and 2004 during portions of the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, recently admitted that the idea of IS eventually becoming a legitimate state with working airports and passports is "not inconceivable."
The Islamic State is also accumulating plenty of money. According to one estimate, IS nets $500 million in annual revenue from oil sales in addition to the $1 billion the terrorist group lifts from banks in areas it controls.
Obama has insisted in July that there are "no current plans" to send more U.S. troops overseas to fight IS.