Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the Islamic State group (ISIS or ISIL) is “beyond just a terrorist group,” and has become a 9/11-level threat to the United States, but the U.S. military’s mission to defeat them will remain limited – for now.
“ISIL is as sophisticated and well-funded as any group that we have seen. They’re beyond just a terrorist group,” Hagel said the Pentagon on Thursday. “They marry ideology, a sophistication of strategic and tactical military prowess. They are tremendously well funded. Oh, this is beyond anything that we’ve seen. So we must prepare for everything, and the only way you do – you take a cold, steely hard look at it and get ready.”
It is a stark warning from the Pentagon boss, coming amid a week in which President Barack Obama has escalated the air campaign against ISIS fighters, arguably beyond the originally stated mission of humanitarian aid or protecting threatened U.S. personnel or facilities in Iraq. Hagel unleashed an unsparing characterization of the ISIS group as “barbaric,” in response to their beheading of American journalist Jim Foley. The group has threatened to execute another journalist if Obama does not cease the attacks.
“This is an organization that has an apocalyptic, end-of-days strategic vision and which will eventually have to be defeated,” said Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey.
However, both Pentagon leaders were careful to tread lightly on questions about the military’s role, explaining that while airstrikes alone would not be enough to defeat the Islamic State group neither would any amount of military power. Defeating ISIS requires much more, they said, invoking a whole-of-government operation with a coalition of foreign militaries. It is a position reflective, in part, of the way the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were fought, and echoes Hagel and Dempsey’s repeated warnings against sending the U.S. military to intervene in the Syrian civil war.
“Military kinetic actions, airstrikes, are part of that,” Hagel said of the mission against ISIS. “But it’s bigger than just a military operation. And our efforts as we have executed the president’s strategy on this are specifically targeted, just as the president has said for the reasons he said.” Hagel said the U.S. is working with Iraqi forces, Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, European allies and across the U.S. government. “But it isn’t going to just come as a result of airstrikes. Strategically, there are limits to how much you can accomplish with airstrikes.”
“Yes, the answer is they can be contained,” Dempsey said of the group, but “not in perpetuity.”
The Joint Chiefs chair said that defeating the ISIS would require a local coalition willing to engage the group’s fighters inside of Syria, as well as counter the influence of their ideology across the region – a movement and partnership that has not yet materialized.
“That will come when we have a coalition in the region that takes on the task of defeating ISIS over time. ISIS will only truly be defeated when it’s rejected by the 20 million disenfranchised Sunnis that happen to reside between Damascus and Baghdad,” he said.
Fighters in Iraq have complained they are not receiving adequate U.S. military aid, especially heavier firepower –- a protest Syrian moderate rebels have voiced for years, saying the firepower U.S. leaders pledged to provide has not come.
Hagel defended the rising levels of aid given to Iraq this year. “Well, first of all, we are providing a tremendous amount of military assistance to the Peshmerga through the Iraqi security forces. It is one country,” he said. “And there is no question that we have accelerated — as a matter of fact, all year long we have been accelerating all the requests made by the Iraqi government for legal assistance and equipment. And we continue to do that.”
The secretary also said that the U.S. military’s failed attempt to rescue hostages in Syria was “flawless,” despite the fact that the hostages weren’t there when troops arrived to try to save them.
“The fact is,” he said, “as you all know, intelligence doesn’t come wrapped in a package with a bow.”
This was originally published in Defense One on September 10, 2014.
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