Aided by a blistering series of U.S. airstrikes, Kurdish fighters made apparent progress last weekend in retaking a strategically important dam near Mosul from insurgents with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), marking a new phase in Iraq's civil war.
The administration has said the U.S. hopes to contain ISIS, using air power to soften the group until the Iraqi government and other regional powers can neutralize the threat. But some worry whether the U.S. can afford to wait for Baghdad to get its act together, given the continued humanitarian catastrophe and the fear that ISIS is establishing a safe haven for terrorism.
"We're in a war with these guys, and we seem to halfway recognize it, but the president needs to explain that," former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey told CBS News. "He needs to use that word. If he doesn't, we're going to have a hard time finding allies."
The U.S. has worked to empower forces like the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and the Iraqi military while continuing its own air campaign against ISIS. Ultimately, Iraq must be able to "defend not just Baghdad in the south but also to take territory" currently controlled by ISIS, explained CBS News Senior National Security Analyst Juan Zarate.
Helping the Kurds secure the dam near Mosul was a positive development, Jeffrey said, but there are limits to what the Peshmerga can or will accomplish. "The Kurds aren't going to die for Tikrit," he said. "The Iraqi army will, but it has to be far better trained, better motivated, and more appealing to the Sunni Arabs, and that's going to take some time."
Perhaps the biggest strategic goal is a political shift in Baghdad that will convince Sunni Muslims -- the backbone of ISIS -- to lay down their arms and buy into Iraq's government. And until that happens, experts fear, the rest is just noise.
"That's a necessary baseline," said Zarate. "You have to have a political agreement where the Sunni...elements of the populace are not isolated and alienated. That has been one of the sectarian preconditions that have allowed ISIS to grow in influence."
The resignation of former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who was blamed for alienating Sunnis during his tenure, was seen as a positive first step, but it's only the first of many. The hope is that Iraq's new prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, will have more credibility to pull Sunni leaders back into a governing coalition and isolate extremists in a replay of the "Sunni Awakening" of 2006 and 2007.
"The counteroffensive has to start with a better Iraqi government," said Jeffrey. "We have to work with al-Abadi to find a deal that will work for the Kurds and the Sunnis."
"But that's a strategy that takes time," Zarate cautioned, "and it doesn't solve the broader problem of the Islamic State establishing itself, building momentum, drawing recruits."
He worried that the situation in Iraq feels like a "pre-9/11 environment," with heavily armed militants gaining control of territory, establishing a safe haven, and drawing extremists from across the world.
House Intelligence Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., said Sunday on CBS' "Face the Nation" that the group actually poses a greater threat to the U.S. than al Qaeda did before September 11.
"The threat matrix is so wide and it's so deep, we just didn't have that before 9/11," he explained. "A terrorist organization that holds land the size of Indiana, has tanks, helicopters, ... as much as $1 billion in both precious metals [and] currency. And, by the way, they're selling oil on the black market to the tune of about $1 million a day according to some [analysts]. That means you've got a severely dangerous organization."
Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson have each warned that fighters pouring into Iraq, some of them American, could be radicalized by their experience on the battlefield and return to plan attacks at home. But despite those concerns, Zarate warned, the U.S. "seems not to be acting with the urgency to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat this network the way that we did post-9/11 with al Qaeda."
"Putting the Humpty Dumpty of the Iraqi state back together is important, but it's not going to solve the immediate problem of the growing strength of [ISIS]," he said.
"Containment looks like defeat," added Jeffrey. "You can't contain these guys. You try to contain them, and you're going to have hundreds of thousands of young men from across the Middle East either joining them or causing unrest in their own countries."
In the end, defeating ISIS and neutralizing the threat to the U.S. homeland may require a more sustained commitment from the Iraqis and the West.
Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., told Fox News Sunday that the U.S. should marshal NATO forces and get the Europeans to step up to the plate, given their closer proximity to Iraq and Syria.
He also said the U.S. may ultimately need to send ground troops to Iraq beyond the military advisers and diplomatic personnel already there.
"Not something I want," Engel said, but "the worse choice is to do nothing."
Jeffrey allowed that some additional U.S. troops may need to be deployed when "nobody has the training or equipment to accomplish what U.S. special operations forces can accomplish."
Whatever the U.S. commitment, defeating ISIS is "going to be a major lift, because this is a real fighting force," Zarate warned. "They have real control of territory, and it's not just a problem in Iraq, it's also the problem in Syria. That's a major geopolitical problem, and the U.S. has to exert some capital and some energy and leadership behind this if we actually hope to defeat this group."
Some have raised the possibility that ISIS might simply collapse under the weight of its own extremism. The hope is that ISIS could overreach by taking too much territory, too quickly, or the group could be rejected by the broader Sunni population because they're simply too brutal.
But waiting and hoping for ISIS to rot from within won't solve the more immediate problem, Zarate warned. "In the near term, what they're doing is they're gaining more territory, more resources, and more recruits," he said. "That's dangerous for all of us."