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After more than three months of air attacks against ISIS forces in Iraq and Syria, U.S. intelligence and defense officials say minimal progress has been made toward President Barack Obama’s stated goal to “degrade and destroy” the Islamic terror group.
Intelligence gathered over the past several weeks, which was being presented at a classified briefing for senators on Wednesday, indicates that while airstrikes have stalled offensives by ISIS forces in some areas, in at least one aspect, ISIS appears to be growing stronger despite the bombing.
“The trajectory of foreign fighters is ticking up,” said one U.S. intelligence official, who like the others spoke with NBC News on condition of anonymity. The official cautioned that the figures U.S. intelligence has compiled are estimates and that analysts have “limited insight” into the number of foreign fighters arriving from the West.
Defense officials note, however, that the 945 U.S. air strikes conducted so far – 521 in Iraq and 424 in Syria – have succeeded in pushing back or stalling offensives by ISIS forces in some areas.
U.S. military officials say Iraqi security forces (ISF) have had some tactical successes and established a wider defensive perimeter around Baghdad, for example. But they warn that the Iraqis are still a long way from launching any major ground offensive against ISIS forces in and around Mosul or in the Anbar province.
Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey said Wednesday that there is a “delicate balance” on the ground between Iraqi troops’ combat capabilities and ISIS resistance and warned that Iraqi forces should not venture “too far into hostile areas.”
“I’m encouraged, but pragmatic,” said Dempsey.
The U.S. is currently spending approximately $8 million per day on airstrikes and support operations and the total cost since airstrikes began Aug. 8 is $832 million. Some 50 U.S. special operations forces are on the ground, embedded with Iraqi Army’s 7th Division at the al-Assad airbase in the Anbar province. About half of them are military combat advisers, the other half are assisting primarily in logistics and communications.
All told, some 1,400 U.S. military personnel are in Iraq now, a number that will climb to 1,900 in the months ahead.
Here are some of the most recent intelligence estimates, compiled earlier this week:
- Territory: The allied air strikes have pushed back or stalled offensives by ISIS forces in some areas. The Haditha Dam on the Euphrates River and Mosul Dams are no longer besieged by ISIS fighters, Iraqi forces this week retook the major Baiji refinery north of Baghdad, other villages in the region that were formerly under ISIS control are now “contested” and an ISIS offensive against the northern Syrian border city of Kobani has been stalled. But the air campaign and efforts on the ground by Iraqi forces have not succeeded in dislodging ISIS from some of the largest cities it has seized, including Mosul.
- Weapons: U.S. airstrikes have taken out dozens of heavy weapons, most of which ISIS fighters seized from Iraqi troops, but there is no indication that they have had a significant impact in reducing the group’s military capabilities.
- Military strength: 20,000 to 31,500 fighters.
- Number of foreign fighters: As many as 16,000 from 90 countries are believed to have traveled to Syria to fight with various groups, ranging from the U.S.-backed Syrian Free Army to ISIS. U.S. intelligence has no breakdown by group. The numbers include those who have gone to Syria and returned as well as those who are still fighting. They also include some who have been killed.
- Foreign fighters from Western nations: Approximately 2,700 fighters hail from Western countries, that up from an estimate of 2,000 foreign fighters a month ago. That figure includes at least 500 from the U.K., 700 from France, 400 from Germany and more than 100 Americans have traveled, or tried to travel into Syria to fight for groups opposed to the Assad regime in Syria's civil war. A “handful” to slightly more than a dozen Americans are believed to be fighting for ISIS.
- Other foreign fighters: Iraq and Libya are believed to be the biggest sources of fighters from the Arab world.
- Americans stopped from traveling to Syria to fight: 17 (including five juveniles). Ages range from 15 to 63 and include five women.
- Main point of entry: the Turkish-Syrian border.
- Propaganda: ISIS now has social media feeds in 23 languages.