Could Hagel resignation signal shift in US strategy against Islamic State?

Before his resignation, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel criticized US strategy in Syria against the Islamic State in a letter to National Security Adviser Susan Rice. However, the Pentagon maintains there is no connection between the two events.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
Department of Defense press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby speaks to reporters during a news conference at the Pentagon, Nov. 7. Rear Admiral Kirby fielded questions from reporters Tuesday about whether the resignation of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel might be the beginning of a shift in strategy in the fight against the Islamic State.

Does the resignation of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel signal that the Obama administration is planning to change its strategy in its fight against the Islamic State?

The stepping down of key officials is often a prelude to such changes in policy, and the White House has been struggling to defend its approach in Iraq and Syria, where the Islamic State, also known as IS, ISIS, or ISIL, continues to control vast swaths of territory.

The Pentagon, for its part, is pushing back against the notion that the two events are linked.

“There is no connection between the secretary’s resignation announced yesterday and the strategy that we’re pursuing against ISIL in Iraq and Syria – no connection whatsoever,” Rear Adm. John Kirby, Pentagon press secretary, said in a briefing Tuesday with reporters. “I wouldn’t draw from one any kind of conclusions or changes to the other.” 

The current strategy against the Islamic State is working, Pentagon officials insist. “We’re making progress,” Rear Admiral Kirby said, adding that Iraqi security forces are now pushing out beyond Baghdad into western Anbar Province, Sunni territory where tribes have been brutalized in the IS offensive. 

Iraq’s Kurdish peshmerga forces also continue to gain ground in the north, Kirby said. Indeed, the peshmerga appear to be establishing a security zone around Diyala, the former Sunni sanctuary north of Baghdad, while Shiite militias have been able to regain towns in the same province from IS, according to a report from the Institute for the Study of War (ISW).

That said, as the Islamic State continues to wage its campaign, “the threat of lawlessness is increasing,” the ISW report warns. “This threat is particularly increasing in Diyala, Baghdad, and also in Basra in southern Iraq.”

But it was Secretary Hagel who wrote a letter to National Security Adviser Susan Rice, explaining that he was worried that US policy in Syria was unraveling, thus implicitly challenging the narrative that the White House strategy is working. Could that have been one of the precipitating reasons for his dismissal?

“These were policy disagreements, or debates and discussions, that were not driving factors in the decision that the secretary made to submit his resignation,” Kirby told reporters. 

“That’s his job, to give his opinion,” he added. “It is not the giving of that opinion that has led in any way to his decision.”

But Pentagon officials hastened to add, too, that the memo doesn’t represent a rift between the White House and the Pentagon. “Regardless of what those communications say – whatever the content may be – the secretary has been clear with you himself that he believes this is the right policy we are pursuing against ISIL in both Iraq and in Syria,” Kirby said. “He has also said that strategy, just by its own definition, has to be constantly reviewed and evaluated.”

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