The news: That supposedly ultralimited, small-scale air campaign against Islamic State militants in northern Iraq (and soon possibly Syria) is quickly shaping up to look a lot like a full-fledged war. The New York Times reports that White House officials are preparing for a conflict that could take "years," possibly until after President Obama leaves office.
Over the weekend, the president additionally explained that the U.S. would "start going on some offense" against Islamic State.
"We are going to be a part of an international coalition, carrying out airstrikes in support of work on the ground by Iraqi troops, Kurdish troops," he told NBC's Meet the Press. "We are going to systematically degrade their capabilities. We're going to shrink the territory that they control. And ultimately we're going to defeat them."
What's happened so far: The U.S. has as of Sunday launched around 145 airstrikes (at a rapidly increasing cost of $7 million a day) in Iraq, which have struck targets such as militants advancing on Haditha Dam. According to Reuters, that attack wiped out "four IS Humvees, four IS armed vehicles, two of which were carrying anti-aircraft artillery, an IS fighting position, one IS command post and an IS defensive fighting position."
Despite the president's claim at the start of the bombings that he would "not allow the United States to be dragged into fighting another war in Iraq," the scope of the attacks have now expanded well beyond the two initially stated objectives of halting the IS advance on the Kurdish stronghold of Irbil and protecting thousands of minority Yazidis fleeing forced conversion and death at the hands of IS fighters in Sinjar.
Though the White House has specifically denied any desire to deploy ground troops into Iraq, the airstrikes are likely to continue as the U.S. enters a second phase that will involve training, equipping and supporting Kurdish and Iraqi government fighters in a renewed counterattack on IS-controlled territory throughout Iraq. The president's full strategy will be announced Wednesday amid expectations that a more representative and capable Iraqi government will be formed this week following the ouster of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in August.
The president maintains that getting more deeply involved in Iraq again will not undo years of work pulling U.S. military forces out of Iraq. "This is not the equivalent of the Iraq War," he told NBC. "What this is similar to is the kinds of counterterrorism campaigns that we've been engaging in consistently over the last five, six, seven years."
But officials interviewed by the NYT said that there was "really no other alternative" to the U.S. eventually going beyond Iraq and bombing IS in its sanctuaries throughout Syria. That would put American forces in the awkward position of backing up the autocratic Syrian government led by Bashar Assad, who Obama faced off with earlier this year after the former used chemical weapons on civilians.
Why you should care: For better or for worse, it now seems clear the U.S. will likely be militarily engaged in Iraq and soon possibly Syria for up to three years.
"Look, at the end of the day, this, as the president has said, is going to have to be a sustained effort, and it's going to take time, and it'll probably go beyond even this administration to get to the point of defeat," deputy national security adviser Antony J. Blinken told CNN last week.
But Middle East expert David Schenker of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy was less optimistic. "This is a project that is going to take years at a minimum," he told The Hill. "ISIS is an organization that is not only a military organization ... They also provide social services. They have a reservoir of sympathy."
After a decade of fighting al-Qaida with much larger military operations, he lamented, "al-Qaida is still alive and kicking."