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Statement on Counter-ISIL before the Senate Armed Services Committee

Thank you, Mr. Chairman, Ranking Member Reed, Members of the Committee:  thank you for the opportunity to come before you and to address your questions and concerns about this campaign. 

And I want to especially thank the Chairman for going to Afghanistan over his Fourth of July weekend, which I appreciate. Visiting the troops means a lot to us, sir. 

And, as all of you know, there is high demand for American leadership in the world – from Asia, where I saw some of you in May, to Europe, where I was two weeks ago.  The Obama Administration and the members of this committee have helped ensure the United States meets that demand.  And I thank you for that.

The same is true in the Middle East, where we are standing by our friends, like Israel, working to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon and otherwise exercising malign influence, and confronting ISIL, which is the subject of this hearing. 

It was also the subject of a meeting yesterday at the Pentagon where President Obama, Chairman Dempsey, and I discussed our counter-ISIL campaign with senior defense and interagency leaders.  We all agreed that ISIL represents a grave threat.  And that it must be – and will be – dealt a lasting defeat. 

That’s our objective, which is shared by a global coalition that reflects both the world-wide consensus on the need to counter ISIL and the practical requirement for others to do their part.  The administration’s strategy to achieve that objective – as the Joint Chiefs’ doctrinal definition of strategy puts it – integrates all our nation’s strengths and instruments of power as has been noted.  And it is executed through nine, synchronized lines of effort. 

The first, and arguably most, critical line of effort is the political one, as has also been noted, which is led by the State Department.  This line involves building more effective, inclusive, and multi-sectarian governance in Iraq.

At the same time, the United States continues to work diplomatically to bring about a political transition from Bashar al-Assad to a more inclusive government with which we can also work to defeat ISIL.

The next two lines of effort are interconnected – to deny ISIL safe haven, and to build partner capacity in Iraq and Syria.  Both are led by the Department of Defense, which, alongside coalition partners, is conducting an air campaign, advising and assisting Iraqi Security Forces on the ground, and training and equipping vetted local forces in Iraq and for Syria.

Before I go on, let me say that these first three political and military lines of effort have to be in sync – a point that’s been made already.  That’s a challenge, but one that we are working through with our partners in the coalition, on the ground, and around our government.  

The fourth line of effort is enhancing intelligence collection on ISIL, which is led by the National Counterterrorism Center.  The fifth line of effort, disrupting ISIL’s finances, is co-led by Treasury and State. 

Lines of effort six and seven, both co-led by State and the National Counterterrorism Center, are to counter ISIL’s messaging and disrupt the flow of foreign fighters to and from ISIL, both of which are critical in today’s connected and networked world.  The eighth line of effort, providing humanitarian support to those affected by the conflicts in Iraq and Syria, is led by State and [US]AID.

Finally, the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, and the Department of Justice are working together to protect the homeland – the ninth line of effort – by disrupting terrorist threats.  In addition to our full-spectrum cooperative relationship with Department of Homeland Security and other law enforcement agencies, DoD personnel continue to strike ISIL elements in Iraq and Syria.

The effective execution of all nine of these lines of effort by the United States and its coalition partners is necessary to ensure ISIL’s lasting defeat.  

I want to add briefly that there are important classified dimensions to our approach to ISIL and to the Middle East more broadly, Mr. Chairman, that we won’t be able to discuss in this meeting, but can discuss separately.

Let me turn to the execution of the two lines of effort on which DoD leads, which our personnel have been performing with the excellence we all expect of the finest fighting force the world has ever known. 

American service members, and their coalition partners, have conducted over 5,000 airstrikes.  That air campaign has produced some clear tactical results: limiting ISIL’s freedom of movement, constraining its ability to reinforce its fighters, and degrading its command and control.  Coalition air support has also enabled gains by local forces in Iraq and Syria, including Syrian Kurdish and Arab forces, who recently took the key border town of Tal Abyad from ISIL, cut one of its key lines of communication and supply,and put ISIL on the defensive and its stronghold in Raqqah under pressure.

Those examples demonstrate, again, that where we have had a credible ground force working in a coordinated way with the coalition air campaign, ISIL has suffered.  That is what makes the third line of effort – developing the capacity and capabilities of local ground forces – so important.  Indeed, we know from recent experience that success against ISIL requires capable, local, ground forces.  And we know from our history in the region that putting U.S. combat troops on the ground as a substitute for local forces will not produce enduring results. 

That’s why we’re bolstering Iraq’s security forces and building moderate, vetted Syrian opposition forces.  But both of these efforts need strengthening.

In Iraq, the Iraqi security forces were severely degraded after four divisions dissolved and Mosul fell a year ago this June.  Our efforts to build partner capacity and advise and assist ongoing operations involve around 3,550 American personnel at six locations around the country.  Their training work has been slowed, however, by a lack of trainees: as of June 30, we’ve only received enough trainees to be able to train about 8,800 Iraqi Army soldiers and Peshmerga forces, in addition to some 2,000 CTS personnel.  Another 4,000 soldiers, including 600 CTS personnel, were in training.  I’ve told Iraqi leaders that while the United States is open to supporting Iraq more than we already are, we must see a greater commitment from all parts of the Iraqi government. 

We’re also in the early stages of our train-and-equip mission in Syria.  Three months into our program, training is underway, and we are working to screen and vet almost 7,000 volunteers to ensure they are committed to fighting ISIL, pass a counterintelligence screening, and meet standards prescribed by U.S. law – regarding the law of armed conflict – and necessitated by operations.  As of July 3, we are currently training about 60 fighters.  This number is much smaller than we hoped for at this point, partly because of the vetting standards I just described. 

But we know this program is essential: we need a partner on the ground in Syria to assure ISIL’s lasting defeat.  And, as training progresses, we are learning more about the opposition groups and building important relationships, which increases our ability to attract recruits and provides valuable intelligence for counter-ISIL operations.  

We are also working to equip vetted local forces.  In Iraq, after earlier delays, we’re expediting delivery of essential equipment and materiel to the Iraqi Security Forces – and working with the Government of Iraq to ensure this equipment is quickly passed to Kurdish Peshmerga and Sunni tribal forces.  In Syria, we’ll begin equipping forces as soon as they complete training.

We are constantly assessing this approach – we did so after the fall of Ramadi, and continued through yesterday with President Obama at the Pentagon.  The strategy’s the right one, but its execution can and will be strengthened…especially on the ground.  In Iraq, we’re focused on increasing participation in and throughput of our training facilities.  An example of this is our effort at Taqqadum – which has been noted – in Anbar Province, where we recently deployed approximately 350 of the additional 450 American personnel authorized.  We assessed our presence at this military base would provide access to thousands of previously unreachable Sunni tribesmen.  This is in support of the Iraqi government’s own initiative to increase outreach to the Anbar tribes.  As of mid-June, the Iraqi government has enrolled and armed an initial group of 800 Sunni fighters at Taqaddum, and we are supporting the Iraqi training of 500 additional fighters now at Taqaddum.  The Iraqis have already identified 500 more trainees that will follow the current group.  And we’ll continue to work to ensure that these Sunni fighters, which are critical to the success of our campaign, have the training and equipment needed to effectively fight ISIL. 

I should also note that the Anbar Operations Center is located at Taqaddum, which is another reason for that particular geography, so that we can advise and assist the Iraqi commanders there commanding Sunni forces.

In Syria, we seek to capitalize on recent successes in Kobane and Tal Abyad and continue to strike ISIL’s nerve center in Raqqah.  At the same time, we are looking for ways to streamline our train and equip program’s vetting process – which I noted earlier – to get more recruits into the training pipeline.  We are also refining our curriculum, expanding our outreach to the moderate opposition, and incorporating lessons learned from the first training class.  I’m happy to speak about that more.

In conclusion, I’ve sought to describe to you clearly the strategy, the Department of Defense’s execution of its critical lines of effort, and where our execution can – and will – and must – be strengthened.

Achieving ISIL’s lasting defeat will require continued commitment… steady leadership – from the United States and our global coalition…hard work by our men and women in uniform…essential complementary and synchronized efforts along the other seven lines of effort…and, most importantly, commitment and sacrifice by Iraqis and Syrians.  Together, and with your continuing support for the men and women of the Department of Defense, for which we are ever grateful, we will achieve ISIL’s lasting defeat.

Thank you.