Obama on fighting Islamic State: 'It will take time to root them out'

In a rare briefing from the Pentagon, President Obama emphasizes the need for 'an effective partner on the ground' to push back ISIS. The US will speed up the training of anti-Islamic State forces, he says. 

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
President Obama (l.) is flanked by US Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (second from r.) and Vice Chairman US Navy Adm. Sandy Winnefeld (r.) as he delivers remarks after a briefing on US efforts against the Islamic State (IS), at the Pentagon on Monday.

Critics of the Obama administration’s war policy have tended to focus on what more the Pentagon could be doing in the fight against the Islamic State (IS): sending over more weapons, say, and more trainers – and perhaps, for good measure, even some US troops to help foreign forces more accurately target the enemy in Syria and Iraq. 

Flanked Monday by America’s top military officer, Gen. Martin Dempsey, as well as other brass including Gen. Joseph Votel, head of US Special Operations Command, President Obama was most interested in once again emphasizing his belief that this approach is a non-starter. Many of the Pentagon’s top officials back him in this assessment.

Billed as the chance to bat around “what’s working, and what we can do better” against IS with his national security team, Mr. Obama’s Pentagon briefing following this meeting with military officials was his first since last October. 

The president highlighted, too, what’s working well for IS militants at the moment: namely, their frustrating ability to hold onto some key urban real estate in Iraq and Syria, which serves as an important security blanket for the terrorist group. After all, if they’re in the middle of cities, it’s tough for the US military to bomb them. 

Currently, IS is “dug into the civilian population,” Obama said. “It will take time to root them out.” This rooting out will not be the job of US forces, however, he stressed. “It must be the job of local forces, with training and air support” from the US-led coalition.

The US military has hit IS with more than 5,000 airstrikes since the campaign began, Obama added, which in turn has “taken out thousands of fighting positions, tanks, vehicles, [and] training camps” as well as “thousands of fighters, including senior ISIL commanders,” he added, using another acronym for the Islamic State.

This figure increased notably over the weekend, as the US military began “doing more in Syria from the air,” as Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter put it during a press conference earlier Monday. “I think you saw some of that in recent days,” he suggested to the press. 

The “opportunity to do that,” Secretary Carter said, has of late come from “effective action on the ground by Kurdish forces, which gives us the opportunity to support them tactically,” he added. “That’s what we were doing over the weekend, north of Raqqa, [Syria]."

This is where Syrian Kurdish forces have been able to provide the US military with more targets on the ground. “That’s the manner in which effective and lasting defeat of ISIL will occur,” Carter said. “When there are more effective local forces on the ground. So they can take territory, hold territory, and make sure good governance comes in behind it.”

It is a point that Obama emphasized, as well: “When we have an effective partner on the ground, ISIL can be pushed back.” 

Local partnerships are key to the current US strategy under Obama, who on Monday reiterated that he will try to speed up the training of anti-IS forces, including Syrian moderates and volunteers from the Sunni tribes in the Anbar province of Iraq. 

The US struggles against IS to date “highlight the challenges of finding good partners to work with,” says Paul Scharre, senior fellow with the Center for a New American Security in Washington and a former special operations reconnaissance team leader with the US Army’s 3rd Ranger Battalion.

It also raises a key question: “Ultimately, do we need US boots on the ground to take cities from ISIS?”

Mr. Scharre argues not. “Obviously, it doesn’t gain anything for the US to go in and clear cities on their own if Iraqi forces can’t hold these areas,” he says. “But once you have partners, you can bring to bear more tools like American air power to support them.”

Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, promptly issued a statement making it clear that he was unimpressed by Obama’s remarks, which “reveal the disturbing degree of self-delusion that characterizes the administration’s campaign against IS,” he said. “None of the so-called progress that the president cited suggests that we are on a path to success, and when you are not winning in warfare, you are losing.”

It is a point lawmakers including Senator McCain are certain to take up when Carter and General Dempsey come before the Senate Armed Services Committee to discuss the same topic Tuesday morning.

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