President Obama launched a robust defense of his strategy to defeat the Islamic State with a detailed account on Monday of territory taken from the enemy, bombs dropped and leaders killed.
“We are hitting ISIL harder than ever,” Obama said, using an acronym for the group. So far, he said, the United States has dropped nearly 9,000 bombs and last month struck more targets since the United States began attacking the Islamic State last year.
Obama has been under intense pressure from Democrats and Republicans to increase the pace and intensity of the campaign against the Islamic State following recent terrorist attacks in San Bernardino, Calif., and Paris.
His rare appearance at the Pentagon, after a meeting with his top national security staff, seemed designed specifically to counter criticism that he hasn’t devoted enough resources to destroying the group.
Obama addressed the country a week ago from the Oval Office in an effort to tamp down fears in the United States of another terrorist attack. In his appearance Monday, he adopted a significantly tougher tone, insisting that the Islamic State is losing and demonstrating a resolve that some critics said was lacking in his earlier remarks. In an unusual step, he read off the names of seven Islamic State leaders who have been killed by U.S. airstrikes in recent months. “The list goes on,” Obama said.
The president portrayed the Islamic State as a group that was being pushed out of territory that it has controlled. “So far, ISIL has lost about 40 percent of the populated areas it once controlled in Iraq and it will lose more,” Obama said.
He described the group as “thugs, thieves and killers” and said that its harsh tactics are continuing “to repel local populations and fuel the refugee crisis.”
Despite some gains, U.S.-backed forces have not been able to dislodge the Islamic State from any of its major strongholds, such as Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. Obama acknowledged that Islamic State fighters remain “entrenched” in these larger urban areas and that American partners “face a tough fight ahead.”
The president also nodded to the impatience of his critics, saying, “We recognize that progress needs to keep coming faster.”
One day before the November Paris attacks Obama said that the United States and its partners had “contained” Islamic State forces on the ground in Iraq and Syria — a remark that drew heavy criticism from Republicans.
Obama doubled down on that assessment on Monday, saying that Islamic State fighters were no longer capable of launching large offensives in Iraq or Syria. “They know if they mass their forces we will wipe them out,” he said.
Monday’s visit marks the start of a week in which the president will focus heavily on the terrorism threat to the United States during the holiday season. It also marks a busy stretch for his top cabinet officers, including Secretary of Defense Ashton B. Carter who will leave for the Middle East this afternoon to press America’s allies to increase their commitment to the fight. Secretary of State John F. Kerry will be in Moscow tomorrow as part of a broader effort to secure a peace deal that will end the civil war.
Obama was last at the Pentagon in July, when he pressed the military for more options to intensify the fight in Iraq and Syria to take back territory seized by the radical Islamic group. That visit came two months after the Islamic State seized the city of Ramadi in western Iraq and amid concerns that the group was gaining momentum.
This time, the president described his Pentagon visit as a periodic update on the campaign and efforts to intensify pressure on the group.
Before the attacks in Paris last month, Obama boosted the number of U.S. warplanes in Turkey and ordered a small contingent of Special Operations forces to move into northern Syria to help the moderate opposition there take key terrain from the Islamic State. Obama said those forces are now in place and are working with Syrian groups to cut off Islamic State supply lines and squeeze Raqqa, the group’s de facto capital.
The Pentagon also has stepped up airstrikes in recent weeks on the Islamic State’s oil infrastructure, which is a key source of revenue for the organization, and recently dispatched a 200-member Special Operations task force to Iraq to target the group’s senior leadership.
But Obama has declined to further escalate the fight in Iraq by sending in Apache helicopters and Special Operations ground advisers to fight alongside front-line Iraqi units and call in airstrikes.
Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter said last week that the United States was prepared to dispatch the accompanying advisers and attack helicopters if Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi requested them for the fight to retake Ramadi. But White House officials said Obama hasn’t approved such measures.
Senior White House officials have said they want to make sure the Iraqis have the right leaders and sufficient forces in place for the Ramadi battle before the United States devoted additional resources to it. The approaches to the city have been heavily mined by Islamic State fighters and progress to retake the city has been perilously slow. U.S. officials said some progress has been made in the past two weeks, which could bolster the case of those arguing for more U.S. support.
Obama will travel to the National Counterterrorism Center on Thursday for a threat briefing just before leaving Washington for his annual two-week Hawaii vacation. White House press secretary Josh Earnest said that the president meets with his top counterterrorism experts around this time every year, but that “obviously there’s heightened awareness” ahead of this year’s holiday season.