MACDILL AIR FORCE BASE, Florida - Iraqi forces are months away from being able to start waging any kind of sustained ground offensive against the Islamic State and any similar effort in Syria will take longer, officials at the US military's Central Command said on Thursday.
In Iraq, the timing will depend on a host of factors, some out of the military's control - from Iraqi politics to the weather. Iraqi forces also must be trained, armed and ready before major advances, like one to retake the city of Mosul, which fell to the Islamic State in June. "It's not imminent. But we don't see that that's a years-long effort to get them to a place to where they can be able to go on a sustained counter-offensive," a military official said, instead describing it as a "months-long"endeavour.
The officials, briefing a group of reporters, said the priority in Iraq was halting the Islamic State's advance but acknowledged Iraq's western Anbar province was contested, despite US-led air strikes.
Iraq's main military divisions in Anbar - the seventh, eighth, ninth, tenth and twelfth - have been badly damaged. At least 6,000 Iraqi soldiers were killed through June and double that number have deserted, say medical and diplomatic sources.
Asked about whether US military advisers in Iraq might head to Anbar, the first official acknowledged discussions were underway broadly about efforts to enable the Iraqis "as far forward as we can" but did not disclose details. The official said talks were also underway with coalition partners about where their advisers might be placed.
Anbar's dominant Sunni population resented former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's Shi'ite majority government but the officials saw positive signs among tribes since Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi was sworn in this September.
Still, the official cautioned Abadi's government must still prove itself and added that the US military would not"squander our credibility" by vouching for it now. Instead, it is limiting itself brokering talks between the government and tribes. "Until the Abadi government can get on its feet and kind of deliver some small successes, I don't think, I don't think we're in a position to make any promises on behalf of that government," the official said.
As the officials outlined a long-term battle in Iraq, they portrayed a longer-term effort in Syria.
Much of the timing in Syria is wrapped up in a planned training mission for US-backed forces whose first goal, one official said, would be defensive - to ensure more towns do not fall. "We're trying to train them initially to be able to defend their towns and villages," the first official said.
But training fighters to be able to challenge the Islamic State offensively requires a greater degree of instruction, and it will take longer to get enough fighters ready.
It might take a year to 18 months "to be able to see an effect on the battlefield," the official said.