UPDATED: INCLUDES TEXT OF OBAMA SPEECH AS PREPARED
Just hours before President Barack Obama goes on the air to explain his strategy to destroy the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the US military released revealing figures on the airstrikes against them so far.
The new data further demolishes the idea that this is a “humanitarian” war. It also shows the self-proclaimed Islamic State remains a relatively low-tech and lightly armed irregular force, as well financed as it may be. True, the terrorists have captured lots of US-made Iraqi Army equipment and at least some Russian-made Syrian military gear. But ISIS, aka ISIL, still relies overwhelmingly on civilian pickup trucks jury-rigged to carry machineguns, the so-called “technicals” that have become emblematic of Third World warfare.
Of the 212 targets “destroyed or damaged” by US airstrikes, according to Central Command data, 88 of them — 40 percent — are technicals. (CENTCOM calls them, vaguely, “armed vehicles,” but a spokesperson confirmed what that meant). Only two are identified as tanks. Even adding in various armored personnel carriers and a single US-made MRAP (Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected) truck, only 15 targets, 7 percent, could be considered armored military vehicles. The most prominent war booty pressed into ISIS service is the Humvee — 37 destroyed, 17 percent of targets — which, while better protected than a technical, remains by military standards a light-weight vehicle.
Data on static targets tells a similar story. Just 21 targets, 10 percent, are what one might charitably consider “heavy weapons”: anti-aircraft guns, mortars, machineguns, and roadside bombs/IEDs (improvised explosive devices). The rest are vaguely identified as “fighting positions” (e.g. trenches), foxholes, and the like, apparently without such heavier weapons present. Actual artillery — howitzers and the like — is remarkable by its absence.
Of course, what the US reports destroyed is not a representative sample of everything the Islamic State possesses. It is possible, indeed logical, that ISIS has pulled back captured tanks and artillery to defend its core territories in Syria and to train its irregular troops on how to use such military-grade equipment: It takes time to learn how to wage an armored blitzkrieg. But what the US is destroying indicates what ISIS is using along the front lines.
The incredible lightness of being ISIS is a double-edged sword. On the upside, it dramatically limits their ability to attack resolutely defended positions. Technical trucks are fast-moving firepower, but they can’t take a hit like a tank and they can’t take cover like an infantryman, so they don’t last long under fire. US forces annihilated waves of technicals in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and even Muammar Gaddafi’s troops managed to fend off technical-riding rebels for months during the Libyan revolution in 2010.
On the downside, a lightly equipped force is easy to train and keep supplied. Technical trucks can refuel and repair at any gas station, not hard to find in oil-rich countries like Syria and Iraq. I’ve seen one report that suggests ISIS has centralized the supply of ammunition, but in Iraq, where every male seems to own an AK-47, small arms ammo is hardly hard to come by.
So far, the Islamic State does not muster enough firepower and armor protection to overcome determined resistance by Shia militias, Kurdish peshmerga, and the better Iraqi government troops. It does have enough to keep the war going for a long, long time.
And that is the fundamental problem with which President Obama must grapple: how do we “degrade and destroy” and discredit a force that is flexible and whose center of gravity is not a place or a military unit but an ideology. Jim Phillips, an expert on the Middle East at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said this morning that the struggle will last decades and and, dauntingly, maybe for a century or more.
One of the great problems the United States and the many other opponents around the globe of these nihilists who claim Islam as their religion is how to discourage those who are attracted to following the black flags they fly.
During the Cold War, America and the West could legitimately offer the glories of liberty to those oppressed by the Soviet Unions and its clients. But how do we break the glamor of those who argue they follow the only true path of Islam and celebrate death in its pursuit?
If Osama bin Laden was right that he would attract followers because al Qaeda was the most powerful Islamist group, then Phillips argues that a two-pronged strategy would be effective. On the one hand, kill as many ISIS followers as possible as often as possible. President Obama is likely to suggest tonight that he will do just that, in concert with as many allied states as we can find.
The second prong, he said, would be our very public support for normal, decent, moderate Muslims. So, with one hand, raise up those who reject the ISIS flag and, with the other, smite ISIS leaders and followers and demonstrate to the world that they are not favored followers of the Prophet Mohammed.
What might this look like? The air war will expand from Iraq to Syria. And we are likely to link our air power with ground forces from nearby forces whose governments are inimical to ISIS’s interests.
Steve Bucci, a former Special Forces commander who was former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon fixer for five years, said the US should link Special Forces troops with local forces and provide substantial air power, most of it from aircraft carriers. But B-52s and other long-range planes can also be highly effective because of the precision of our bombs and missiles, he said at the Heritage Foundation event with reporters, The model he suggested was the one used to cripple the Taliban in the early days after 911.
Now we wait to hear the tone and details of President Obama’s remarks tonight.
Here’s the president’s speech:
As Prepared for Delivery
My fellow Americans – tonight, I want to speak to you about what the United States will do with our friends and allies to degrade and ultimately destroy the terrorist group known as ISIL.
As Commander-in-Chief, my highest priority is the security of the American people. Over the last several years, we have consistently taken the fight to terrorists who threaten our country. We took out Osama bin Laden and much of al Qaeda’s leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan. We’ve targeted al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen, and recently eliminated the top commander of its affiliate in Somalia. We’ve done so while bringing more than 140,000 American troops home from Iraq, and drawing down our forces in Afghanistan, where our combat mission will end later this year. Thanks to our military and counterterrorism professionals, America is safer.
Still, we continue to face a terrorist threat. We cannot erase every trace of evil from the world, and small groups of killers have the capacity to do great harm. That was the case before 9/11, and that remains true today. That’s why we must remain vigilant as threats emerge. At this moment, the greatest threats come from the Middle East and North Africa, where radical groups exploit grievances for their own gain. And one of those groups is ISIL – which calls itself the “Islamic State.”
Now let’s make two things clear: ISIL is not “Islamic.” No religion condones the killing of innocents, and the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim. And ISIL is certainly not a state. It was formerly al Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq, and has taken advantage of sectarian strife and Syria’s civil war to gain territory on both sides of the Iraq-Syrian border. It is recognized by no government, nor the people it subjugates. ISIL is a terrorist organization, pure and simple. And it has no vision other than the slaughter of all who stand in its way.
In a region that has known so much bloodshed, these terrorists are unique in their brutality. They execute captured prisoners. They kill children. They enslave, rape, and force women into marriage. They threatened a religious minority with genocide. In acts of barbarism, they took the lives of two American journalists – Jim Foley and Steven Sotloff.
So ISIL poses a threat to the people of Iraq and Syria, and the broader Middle East – including American citizens, personnel and facilities. If left unchecked, these terrorists could pose a growing threat beyond that region – including to the United States. While we have not yet detected specific plotting against our homeland, ISIL leaders have threatened America and our allies. Our intelligence community believes that thousands of foreigners – including Europeans and some Americans – have joined them in Syria and Iraq. Trained and battle-hardened, these fighters could try to return to their home countries and carry out deadly attacks.
I know many Americans are concerned about these threats. Tonight, I want you to know that the United States of America is meeting them with strength and resolve. Last month, I ordered our military to take targeted action against ISIL to stop its advances. Since then, we have conducted more than 150 successful airstrikes in Iraq. These strikes have protected American personnel and facilities, killed ISIL fighters, destroyed weapons, and given space for Iraqi and Kurdish forces to reclaim key territory. These strikes have helped save the lives of thousands of innocent men, women and children.
But this is not our fight alone. American power can make a decisive difference, but we cannot do for Iraqis what they must do for themselves, nor can we take the place of Arab partners in securing their region. That’s why I’ve insisted that additional U.S. action depended upon Iraqis forming an inclusive government, which they have now done in recent days. So tonight, with a new Iraqi government in place, and following consultations with allies abroad and Congress at home, I can announce that America will lead a broad coalition to roll back this terrorist threat.
Our objective is clear: we will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counter-terrorism strategy.
First, we will conduct a systematic campaign of airstrikes against these terrorists. Working with the Iraqi government, we will expand our efforts beyond protecting our own people and humanitarian missions, so that we’re hitting ISIL targets as Iraqi forces go on offense. Moreover, I have made it clear that we will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country, wherever they are. That means I will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria, as well as Iraq. This is a core principle of my presidency: if you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.
Second, we will increase our support to forces fighting these terrorists on the ground. In June, I deployed several hundred American service members to Iraq to assess how we can best support Iraqi Security Forces. Now that those teams have completed their work – and Iraq has formed a government – we will send an additional 475 service members to Iraq. As I have said before, these American forces will not have a combat mission – we will not get dragged into another ground war in Iraq. But they are needed to support Iraqi and Kurdish forces with training, intelligence and equipment. We will also support Iraq’s efforts to stand up National Guard Units to help Sunni communities secure their own freedom from ISIL control.
Across the border, in Syria, we have ramped up our military assistance to the Syrian opposition. Tonight, I again call on Congress to give us additional authorities and resources to train and equip these fighters. In the fight against ISIL, we cannot rely on an Assad regime that terrorizes its people; a regime that will never regain the legitimacy it has lost. Instead, we must strengthen the opposition as the best counterweight to extremists like ISIL, while pursuing the political solution necessary to solve Syria’s crisis once and for all.
Third, we will continue to draw on our substantial counterterrorism capabilities to prevent ISIL attacks. Working with our partners, we will redouble our efforts to cut off its funding; improve our intelligence; strengthen our defenses; counter its warped ideology; and stem the flow of foreign fighters into – and out of – the Middle East. And in two weeks, I will chair a meeting of the UN Security Council to further mobilize the international community around this effort.
Fourth, we will continue providing humanitarian assistance to innocent civilians who have been displaced by this terrorist organization. This includes Sunni and Shia Muslims who are at grave risk, as well as tens of thousands of Christians and other religious minorities. We cannot allow these communities to be driven from their ancient homelands.
This is our strategy. And in each of these four parts of our strategy, America will be joined by a broad coalition of partners. Already, allies are flying planes with us over Iraq; sending arms and assistance to Iraqi Security Forces and the Syrian opposition; sharing intelligence; and providing billions of dollars in humanitarian aid. Secretary Kerry was in Iraq today meeting with the new government and supporting their efforts to promote unity, and in the coming days he will travel across the Middle East and Europe to enlist more partners in this fight, especially Arab nations who can help mobilize Sunni communities in Iraq and Syria to drive these terrorists from their lands. This is American leadership at its best: we stand with people who fight for their own freedom; and we rally other nations on behalf of our common security and common humanity.
My Administration has also secured bipartisan support for this approach here at home. I have the authority to address the threat from ISIL. But I believe we are strongest as a nation when the President and Congress work together. So I welcome congressional support for this effort in order to show the world that Americans are united in confronting this danger.
Now, it will take time to eradicate a cancer like ISIL. And any time we take military action, there are risks involved – especially to the servicemen and women who carry out these missions. But I want the American people to understand how this effort will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil. This counter-terrorism campaign will be waged through a steady, relentless effort to take out ISIL wherever they exist, using our air power and our support for partner forces on the ground. This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years. And it is consistent with the approach I outlined earlier this year: to use force against anyone who threatens America’s core interests, but to mobilize partners wherever possible to address broader challenges to international order.
My fellow Americans, we live in a time of great change. Tomorrow marks 13 years since our country was attacked. Next week marks 6 years since our economy suffered its worst setback since the Great Depression. Yet despite these shocks; through the pain we have felt and the grueling work required to bounce back – America is better positioned today to seize the future than any other nation on Earth.
Our technology companies and universities are unmatched; our manufacturing and auto industries are thriving. Energy independence is closer than it’s been in decades. For all the work that remains, our businesses are in the longest uninterrupted stretch of job creation in our history. Despite all the divisions and discord within our democracy, I see the grit and determination and common goodness of the American people every single day – and that makes me more confident than ever about our country’s future.
Abroad, American leadership is the one constant in an uncertain world. It is America that has the capacity and the will to mobilize the world against terrorists. It is America that has rallied the world against Russian aggression, and in support of the Ukrainian peoples’ right to determine their own destiny. It is America – our scientists, our doctors, our know-how – that can help contain and cure the outbreak of Ebola. It is America that helped remove and destroy Syria’s declared chemical weapons so they cannot pose a threat to the Syrian people – or the world – again. And it is America that is helping Muslim communities around the world not just in the fight against terrorism, but in the fight for opportunity, tolerance, and a more hopeful future.
America, our endless blessings bestow an enduring burden. But as Americans, we welcome our responsibility to lead. From Europe to Asia – from the far reaches of Africa to war-torn capitals of the Middle East – we stand for freedom, for justice, for dignity. These are values that have guided our nation since its founding. Tonight, I ask for your support in carrying that leadership forward. I do so as a Commander-in-Chief who could not be prouder of our men and women in uniform – pilots who bravely fly in the face of danger above the Middle East, and service-members who support our partners on the ground.
When we helped prevent the massacre of civilians trapped on a distant mountain, here’s what one of them said. “We owe our American friends our lives. Our children will always remember that there was someone who felt our struggle and made a long journey to protect innocent people.”
That is the difference we make in the world. And our own safety – our own security – depends upon our willingness to do what it takes to defend this nation, and uphold the values that we stand for – timeless ideals that will endure long after those who offer only hate and destruction have been vanquished from the Earth.
May God bless our troops, and may God bless the United States of America.”