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Statement on the Administration's Strategy and Military Campaign Against ISIL Before the House Armed Services Committee

Chairman, obviously your last hearing is not going unnoticed and unrecognized. So we shall proceed.

As I was saying, I very much appreciate, and I know General Dempsey does, the opportunity to come back after a couple of months and update this committee on what we’re doing and how we’re doing it, why we’re doing it.

I know that this has not been, as you all know, the only communication we have had with this committee. We have had many, many briefings with your staff. Many of you I have spoken to directly, as well as General Dempsey and many of our military leaders.

So to have this opportunity to bring together and some convergence of explanation of what we’re doing and why and how I very much appreciate.

Mr. Chairman, your leadership and your service to this committee, to this Congress, to this country over many years has been recognized many times appropriately over the last few months. It will continue to be recognized. It should be recognized.

I want to thank you personally for your support, your friendship. I have valued that over the last two years I’ve had the privilege of holding this job. I will miss you personally and I know this committee will. But there are so many very able and capable and dedicated people that are right next to you that will carry on.

So I didn’t want this opportunity to go without me expressing my thanks and best wishes to you and to your family and to the next chapter in your life and your many new adventures that lie ahead.

As I noted, I’m joined this morning by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, who, I, too, have – like you have appreciated his wise council and his partnership as we have dealt with some of the most complex and difficult issues that I think this country has faced in a long time.

And I know General Dempsey appreciates all of your service as well. General Dempsey has played a critical role over the last six months, especially in shaping and developing our strategy along with our CENTCOM commander, who you all know, General Lloyd Austin.

To General Austin and his commanders and to our men and women, I want to thank them.

Mr. Chairman, President Obama, Chairman Dempsey, General Austin, all of our leaders and I have been very clear that our campaign against ISIL will be long and will be difficult. We are three months into a multiyear effort.

As we enter a new phase of this effort, working to train and equip more counter ISIL forces in both Iraq and Syria, we will succeed only with the strong support of Congress and the strong support of this committee.

Since I testified before this committee two months ago, our campaign against ISIL has made progress. ISIL’s advance in parts of Iraq has stalled and in some cases been reversed by Iraqi, Kurdish and tribal forces supported by U.S. and coalition airstrikes.

But ISIL continues to represent a serious threat to American interests, our allies in the Middle East.  And will still influence over a broad swath of territory in Western and Northern Iraq and Eastern Syria.

But as President Obama has said, ISIL will not be defeated through military force alone. 

Our comprehensive strategy is focused on supporting inclusive governance, sustaining a broad-based regional and global coalition and strengthening local forces on the ground.  It also includes undercutting ISIL’s flow of resources, countering ISIL’s messaging, constricting the flow of foreign fighters, providing humanitarian assistance and our intensive regional and global diplomatic effort.

In Iraq, much more needs to be done to achieve political reform. But we are seeing steps in the right direction. In the wake of years of polarizing leadership, Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi is leaning forward by engaging all of Iraqi’s diverse communities.  He’s appointed a Sunni defense minister after that post was left vacant for more than four years. And he’s moving to create a Iraqi National Guard which would empower local forces, especially in Sunni tribal areas of Anbar Province while aligning them with the central government.

And you may have noticed that yesterday it was announced that he replaced 36 of his most senior commanders, integrating the Iraqi Security Forces with more senior Sunni leaders. This is essential to strengthening not only the Iraqi Security Forces but strengthening a central government, a government in Iraq that, in fact, can build trust and confidence of the Iraqi people.

Thanks to intensive diplomacy, America is not supporting this effort alone. We have built a global coalition to support local forces in both Iraq and Syria, a coalition of over 60 nations that are contributing assistance ranging from air support to training to humanitarian assistance.

Since I testified here, 16 nations have joined the military campaign against ISIL.

The first coalition airstrikes in Syria involved Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, a tremendous demonstration of unity among our Middle East Arab partners.

Coalition partners have carried out 130 airstrikes against ISIL in both Iraq and Syria. Last week, Canada launched its first airstrikes in Iraq, bringing the total to 12 nations participating in strike operations in Iraq and Syria, as additional partners provide tanker command and control and intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft.

Coalition nations have also pledged hundreds of personnel to support our mission to train, advise, assist and help build the capacity of Iraqi forces.

Our global coalition is also helping shape the burden of the campaign with nearly all our coalition partners funding their own contributions.

With the President’s Special Envoy for our counter ISIL coalition General John Allen. General Allen is in the lead as he coordinates the coalition strategy and contributions across all our lines of effort with our coalition partners.

As a coalition and as a nation, we must prepare for a long and difficult struggle. There will be setbacks, but we are seeing steady and sustainable progress.

And, Mr. Chairman, I think that’s an important part of answering the questions we have, the questions we have about our own strategy that we ask ourselves, the questions you have about our strategy.

Can we sustain it?

Can be it be sustained after at some point we leave?

That is a critical component of our strategy, asking that question and answering that question. 

We’re seeing steady and sustainable progress along DOD’s two main lines of effort.

First, we’re seeing progress in degrading and destroying ISIL’s warfighting capacity and in denying safe haven to its fighters.  

Directly and through support of Iraqi forces, coalition airstrikes have hit ISIL’s command and control, its leadership, its revenue sources, its supply lines and logistics and impaired its ability to mass forces.  In recent weeks, these strikes helped Peshmerga forces push ISIL out of Zumar in northern Iraq and helped Iraqi Security Forces begin retaking areas around the major oil refinery at Baiji. Last weekend, airstrikes hit a gathering of ISIL battlefield commanders near Mosul.

ISIL fighters have been forced to alter their tactics. We knew they would. They will adapt. They will adjust, maneuvering in smaller groups, sometimes making it more difficult to identify targets, hiding large equipment and changing their communications methods.

Sustaining this pressure on ISIL will help provide time and space, time and space for Iraq to reconstitute its forces and continue going on the offense.  This pressure is having an effect on potential ISIL recruits and collaborators, striking a blow to morale and recruitment. We know that. Our intelligence is very clear on that.  And as Iraqi forces build strength, the tempo and intensity of our coalition’s air campaign will accelerate in tandem.

We need to continue to help build partner capacity so that local forces can take the fight to ISIL and ultimately defeat it.

Today, many of the approximately 1,400 U.S. troops in Iraq are engaged in advise-and-assist programs with Iraqi and Kurdish forces. As you know, last week the Defense Department announced that we will expand the support to Iraqi forces by deploying up to 1,500 additional military personnel including two new advise-and-assist centers at locations beyond Baghdad and Irbil, as well as four new training centers in northern, western and central Iraq.  I recommended this deployment to the President based on the request of the government of Iraq, U.S. Central Command’s assessment of Iraqi units, General Dempsey’s recommendation and the strength of the Iraqi and coalition’s campaign plan.

These additional troops and facilities will help strengthen and reconstitute Iraqi forces, expanding the geography of our mission but not the mission itself. U.S. military personnel will not be engaged in a ground combat mission.

Our phased plan to help strengthen Iraqi Security Forces has three major components. First, our advise-and-assist mission that is partnering coalition advisers with Iraqi forces at the headquarters level. U.S. and coalition advisers are already helping plan current and future operations. And, as noted, we will expand this mission with two new advise-and-assist centers that we have announced.

Second, we will support the regeneration of Iraqi forces so that they are better equipped to launch offensive operations over the coming year. CENTCOM’s new training sites in northern, western and central Iraq will help train 12 Iraqi brigades. And more than a dozen coalition nations have expressed their intent to send trainers and advisers to help build the capacity of Iraqi forces.

Third, we will concentrate on broader security sector reform to help transform Iraqi forces into a more coherent and capable unified force. This includes Prime Minister Abadi’s initiative to develop provincially based National Guard units, which I mentioned earlier.

Coalition partners are playing an important role in all these efforts by providing advisers and trainers to help regenerate Iraqi combat brigades.

Together we are also providing more arms and equipment to Iraqi Security Forces. This year the United States alone has shipped more than $685 million in critical equipment and supplies to Iraq, ranging from grenades and small arms to tank ammunition, helicopter rockets and Hellfire missiles, hundreds of which will be arriving this month.  U.S. and coalition partners together have delivered over 2.7 million pounds of supplies, including 33 million rounds of ammunition to Peshmerga forces alone.

Mr. Chairman, in Syria our actions against ISIL are focused on shaping the dynamic in Iraq which remains the priority of our counter ISIL strategy. But we are sober about the challenges we face as ISIL exploits the complicated long-running Syrian conflict.

Because we do not have a partner government to work with in Syria or regular military partners to work with, as we do in Iraq, in the near term, our military aims in Syria are limited to isolating and destroying ISIL’s safe havens.

Coalition air strikes in Syria are accomplishing this by containing -- or continuing to target significant ISIL assets, which has impaired ISIL’s ability to move fighters and equipment into Iraq, disrupted their command and control, damaged their training bases, and significantly limited their financial revenue by hitting captured oil fields and disrupting their crude oil distribution and collection sites.

The Defense Department’s longer term effort is to train and equip credible, moderate Syrian opposition forces, especially from areas most threatened by ISIL.  This will require at least eight to 12 months to begin making a difference on the ground.  We know the opposition will continue to face intense pressure in a multifront battle space. And we are considering options for how U.S. and coalition forces can further support these forces once they are trained and equipped. These forces are being trained in units, not as individuals.

Our strategy in Syria will demand time, patience, perseverance to deliver results. We cannot accomplish our objectives in Syria all at once.

The position of the United States remains that Asad has lost the legitimacy to govern, that there is no purely military solution to the conflict in Syria.  Alongside our efforts to isolate and sanction the Asad regime, our strategy is to strengthen the moderate opposition to the point where they – where they can first defend and control their local areas. Next, go on the offense and take back areas that have been lost to ISIL. And, ultimately, as their capability and leverage develop, to create conditions for a political settlement in Syria.

Thanks to the broad bipartisan support in Congress, Mr. Chairman, including majorities in both parties, preparations for our Syria train-and-equip mission are now complete.  We’ve established a combined joint interagency task force to coordinate the coalition’s train-and-equip program for Syria. Saudi Arabia, Turkey and other partner nations have agreed to host training sites. Development of those sites, recruiting and vetting will begin when Congress has authorized the actual funding.

But we are still moving forward, doing what we must do to prepare for that vetting process and that training.

We are still at the front end of our campaign against ISIL.

As President Obama told leaders of both houses of Congress last week during a session, which I attended with General Austin. Congressional support, your support, is vital for the campaign to succeed.

As you all know the administration is requesting $5.6 billion in additional Overseas Contingency Operations funding for fiscal year 2015 to help execute our comprehensive strategy in Iraq and Syria. $5 billion of it for the Department of Defense.

$3.4 billion would support ongoing U.S. military actions against ISIL under Operation Inherent Resolve.

$1.6 billion would go toward a new Iraqi train-and-equip fund devoted to helping reconstitute Iraq’s security forces. This fund will be critical for enabling Iraqi Security Forces, including Kurdish and tribal forces, to go on the offense in 2015. And it will require the Iraqi government and coalition members to make significant contributions as well.  Over 60 % [sic], or $1 billion, of the $1.6 billion fund would be available initially. The remaining $600 million would not be released until the government of Iraq and coalition partners have provided at least $600 million of their own contributions, because the Iraqi government must invest in its own security and its own future.

As the President said last week, the administration will be engaging the Congress to support the effort against ISIL by enacting a new and specific Authorization for the Use of Military Force, one that reflects the scope and the challenges of our campaign against ISIL.

DoD will work closely with the Congress on each component of this effort.

As this mission continues to progress, we will continue to evaluate and reevaluate each element of our strategy.

Having just marked Veterans Day earlier this week, let me again thank this committee for what you do every day to support all our men and women in uniform and their families serving this country across the world.

Mr. Chairman, thank you.