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Remarks to the 101st Airborne Division on the Counter-ISIL Campaign Plan

Thank you all, thanks so much, thank you, General Volesky, thank you, your command team, thank you, all of you in front of me, thank you to all of you in this division, this storied historic division, thank you, and please thank your families for supporting you in the mission upon which you will shortly be embarked – more on that shortly.

First though, I want to start off with some good news about some of your fellow service members in the Persian Gulf. The ten U.S. Navy sailors departed Iran early this morning, and are now back safe in U.S. hands. I am very pleased that this was resolved quickly, and I want to take this opportunity to thank Secretary of State Kerry for his efforts… and to reaffirm to you that our highest commitment is to the safety of all of you. Wherever we may ask you to go, the country will never leave an American servicemember behind.

Many of you will deploy soon, and not for the first time. I know that you serve without hesitation, as the Screaming Eagles have always done, but I also know the hardships that can come with every one of those deployments. Stephanie and I are always thinking about your families, who serve, we know, as well as you do. So please thank them on our behalf for supporting you as you keep us safe.

It’s been said that security is like oxygen. When people have enough of it, they tend to pay no attention to it. But when they don’t have enough, it’s all they can think of. You provide that oxygen, not only for the people of the United States but in many cases for people around the world. You give them the security that makes everything else in life possible – the freedom to dream their dreams, raise their children and live lives that are full. You do that.

It’s a big world out there, and we are a great nation, with extraordinary responsibilities, opportunities, and challenges around the world. One of those challenges, which you will soon confront, is the threat that ISIL poses not just to the Middle East but to the world.  

As you heard the President say last night, we must, we can, and we will deliver a lasting defeat to ISIL. That’s why back in the fall, at the President’s direction, I worked with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joe Dunford and General Lloyd Austin, our superb CENTCOM Commander to – and all our commanders on the ground – I should add, our excellent commanders on the ground, which you will shortly join, to accelerate our campaign against ISIL. We proposed a number of military actions – all of which the President approved – to gather momentum against ISIL.

The attacks in Paris, San Bernardino and elsewhere which occurred after we began this acceleration underscored, for anybody who doubted it, the necessity of this campaign. Since then, we have not only gathered momentum but done even more, and are now pressuring ISIL in Iraq and Syria on more fronts than at any other point in the campaign. 

This pressure is having an effect, and it is also generating additional opportunities to further accelerate the campaign. As we continuously adapt and accelerate the campaign, we will intensify the pressure on ISIL, not just in Iraq and Syria, but in other regions where they have emerged, using a variety of tools at our disposal.

It won’t be easy. ISIL is a cancer that’s threatening to spread. And like all cancers, you can’t cure the disease just by cutting out the tumor. You have to eliminate it wherever it has spread, and stop it from coming back. Our military campaign accordingly focuses on three military objectives: One, destroy the ISIL parent tumor in Iraq and Syria by collapsing its two power centers in Mosul and Raqqah. Two, combat the emerging metastases of the ISIL tumor worldwide, and three, protect the homeland.

And to do it, we’re going to enable local, motivated forces and an international coalition with a clear campaign plan, with American leadership, and with all of our awesome capabilities – ranging from air strikes, special forces, cyber tools, intelligence, equipment, mobility and logistics, to training, advice, and assistance from those on the ground – including you.

Let me map for you where we are headed this year and where you’ll be headed.

The ISIL parent tumor has two centers – Raqqah in Syria, and Mosul in Iraq. ISIL has used its control of these cities and nearby territories as a power base from which to derive considerable financial resources, manpower, and ideological outreach. They constitute ISIL’s military, political, economic, and ideological centers of gravity.  

That’s why our campaign plan’s map has got big arrows pointing at both Mosul and Raqqah. We will begin by collapsing ISIL’s control over both of these cities and then engage in elimination operations through other territories ISIL holds in Iraq and Syria.

This defeat of ISIL in Iraq and Syria is a vital and necessary – although not sufficient – component of our worldwide campaign to defeat ISIL. And as I have said previously, President Obama is committed to doing what it takes – as opportunities arise, as we see what works, and as the enemy adapts – until ISIL is delivered a lasting defeat.

Last month I visited with the men and women you will relieve in Baghdad and Erbil. They helped me gain a first-hand perspective on what more we can do to execute this campaign plan, and I have since relayed these observations and those of their commanding officers to our Commander in Chief. 

As I spoke with our troops, and with our partners and our allies, it became apparent that the additional military steps that President Obama approved in the fall are generating significant momentum across the battlefield in Iraq and Syria. We can see that our actions to accelerate the campaign are having an effect, and moreover, are creating yet more opportunities to do even more.

We are taking ground back from the enemy and gaining openings. We are denying ISIL the ability to move fighters and materiel by cutting off key transit routes to, and between, Raqqah and Mosul. We are dismantling ISIL’s war-sustaining finances, targeting its oil production and its industrial base, and we’re using some new methods to hit ISIL in its wallet.

Just this week we hit a major ISIL bulk cash center in Mosul, depriving ISIL of financial resources is an essential part of the shaping operation for Mosul, and we will continue these kinds of operations as part of the overall effort to degrade its financing.

Throughout Iraq and Syria we are significantly constraining its ability either to defend or attack, and we are working with our partners to take advantage of every opportunity this presents. And the specialized expeditionary targeting force I announced in December is now in place and is preparing to work with the Iraqis to begin going after ISIL’s fighters and commanders, killing or capturing them wherever we find them, along with other key targets.

In Syria, we’re combining the effects of our air campaign with support to local forces to isolate, pressure, and eventually collapse ISIL control over its so-called capital in Raqqah. In November, a coalition of Syrian Arabs that we helped equip in northern Syria fighting alongside Kurdish and Turkmen forces recaptured important terrain along the Turkey-Syria border. And in just the past few weeks, with our advice, these forces also captured the Tishreen Dam and surrounding villages, cutting off a critical logistics route for ISIL in Raqqah. All these forces build momentum towards Raqqah, and as they do so other local forces can be expected to join the winning side.

To build on these efforts, President Obama, on my and Chairman Dunford and General Austin's advice, ordered the most elite U.S. special operations forces to go into Syria to support the fight against ISIL. American special operators, as you well know, bring a unique set of capabilities that make them force multipliers, such as intelligence gathering, targeting, and the ability to provide advice and assistance, or accompany local forces to the front lines to help make them victorious.

Through even a small number of these highly trained operators, the full might of America’s airstrikes, intelligence, logistics and know-how can be relentlessly focused on the enemy.

And while I cannot give you specifics, I can tell you these forces have already established contact with new forces that share our goals, new lines of communication to local, motivated and capable fighters, and new targets for airstrikes and strikes of all kinds. These operators have helped focus the efforts of the local, capable forces against key ISIL vulnerabilities, including their lines of communication. They are generating new insights that we turn into new targets, new strikes, and new opportunities.

In short, they are generating a virtuous cycle of actions. Actions which help identify and marshal the strength of yet more local forces. Action which is leading to more intelligence. Action which is generating new tactical and operational ideas. Action which flushes ISIL out into the open, shrinking its power base, its finances and its space to maneuver.

And action that sends an unmistakable message to both ISIL and the moderate Syrian opposition that the United States and the coalition it leads will prevail in this fight.

ISIL must and will be dealt a lasting defeat, a lasting defeat in Syria and Iraq. The defeat must be lasting, so that similar extremism does not recur and emerge from the same places after the campaign. For the defeat to be lasting, it has to achieved and sustained by local forces that are motivated and capable. That’s where you come in.

Frankly, I know the 101st has taken Mosul before, and you could do it again. We could deploy multiple brigades on the ground and arrive in force. But then it would likely become our fight, and our fight alone. Moreover, we’d have to fight on the enemy’s terms, and give up our greatest advantages – mobility, firepower, and precision.

Because the United States is not just the finest fighting force the world has ever seen, and not just because of our overwhelming assets, but we are that because of the extraordinary agility, intelligence, training and precision of professionals like you.

Going in alone would also Americanize the conflict, giving ISIL the chance to call it a foreign occupation, persuading some of those who are resisting ISIL to fight us instead, and feeding the anti-Western story ISIL has been pushing all along as it tries to inspire acts of terror around the world. And finally, in the long term, after ISIL was initially defeated, there would still remain the problem of securing and governing the territory – tasks that must be accomplished, in the end, by local forces. And in the end, therefore, we can enable such local forces, but we cannot entirely substitute for them.

Now another possibility, at the other end of the spectrum, would be to leave Syria and Iraq to their fates and just try to prevent ISIL from spreading elsewhere and in our homeland. But that kind of indirect approach simply cannot succeed in today’s connected and volatile world.

That would just give ISIL a safe haven from which to spread its destructive influence, and it would surrender the strong and principled global leadership the United States stands for.

So we can’t ignore this fight – and we also can’t win it entirely from the outside-in. That’s why our strategic approach is to help local, motivated and capable forces on the ground in every way that we can without taking their place. That’s why your mission is central to our strategy.

It’s worth noting that it was Iraqi soldiers who took back the city center of Ramadi and are fighting every day to clear the remainder of the city, proving themselves not only motivated but capable. These same Iraqi forces, supported where needed by the United States and our coalition partners, aim to deliver the same results to the people who have been brutalized in every town on the road to the border in Anbar and on the road up to Mosul. These devastated towns and villages need to be secured, they need to be rebuilt, and they need to be governed.

The only way for that to happen is for local, motivated forces to take the lead and take responsibility for their homes, so you can return to yours.

As Ramadi showed, our unmatched capabilities can enable and multiply the power and force of our local partners. We’re clearing the battlefield with precision strikes. We’re giving them equipment, and training on how to use it, including, just to give one example, the temporary bridge that helped Iraqi troops cross the Euphrates when ISIL had blown up all the bridges in town. We’re giving them training, advice and assistance in modern warfare, including engineering and logistics. And we are prepared to do more where and when we can have an additional strategic effect.

The training you will provide Iraqi forces – both the Iraqi army and the Peshmerga – will be critical, as the Peshmerga approach Mosul from the north to close with the Iraqi Security Forces and Counterterrorism Service approaching from the south.

Reaching and retaking Mosul will not be easy, and it will not be quick. There will be many engagements in between.

Logistics will become a greater challenge as the ISF moves farther from Baghdad, and the need for operational support from the coalition will likely grow. But as our success in Ramadi and north and central Iraq has shown, training, advising, and assisting rather than trying to substitute entirely for local forces is the right approach. And when we see something that works, we look for ways to do more of it whenever and wherever it can have a strategic effect as we collapse ISIL’s hold on its remaining territory in Iraq.

Now I’ve described the focus of our military campaign plan in Iraq and Syria – that’s you. But there are others who must step up and meet critical challenges that go beyond military action. The military campaign is necessary but not sufficient. For our military efforts to produce lasting effects, we must set the conditions for sustainable political stability in the region. And that means everybody has to be in the game.

I don’t need to tell you how complex a city like Mosul is, and I’m not about to tell you that it’s your job to keep everyone working together when the fighting is done. It’s the diplomats and development experts who are helping the Government of Iraq follow through on rebuilding and restoring opportunity to Sunni regions so the local people have a future worth fighting for themselves. It’s Secretary Kerry’s efforts to help resolve the civil war in Syria and restore order and decency to that shattered country.

We need financial experts at the Department of Treasury involved in cutting off the flow of money to ISIL. We need our intelligence agencies to help us map ISIL’s networks, leadership, and infrastructure, so we can target the organization as effectively as possible, and we need them to look out for any surprises that might be waiting for you out there. We need our law enforcement and homeland security to redouble their efforts to be on the lookout for the threat back home while you take care of the threat over there. All this is what the Commander in Chief has ordered.

Finally, I need to say that we need Congress to empower us to take a more aggressive and more agile approach, the very approach that we know many of them want us to take and know we need to take, and that I’ve chartered out here. And that includes for Congress fully approving pending funding requests we have for funding the fight in Syria – those funds have been held up. 

Next – the campaign is not up to the U.S. alone to accomplish. The lasting defeat of ISIL must be a global undertaking, because it’s a global threat. And any nation that cares about the safety of its people or the future of its civilization must know this – America will continue to lead the fight, but there can be no free riders. That means that as we invest in the acceleration of the campaign, so must every one of our coalition partners and every nation in a position to help. That means greater military contributions, but it also means greater diplomatic, political, and economic engagement. It means development and reconstruction. It means actions at home and abroad to disrupt, dismantle and degrade ISIL’s capabilities. It means stepping up.

And I have personally reached out to my counterparts, the ministers of defense in over 40 countries around the world to ask them to contribute to enhancing the fight against ISIL – more special operations forces, more strike and reconnaissance aircraft, weapons and munitions, training assistance, as well as combat support and combat service support.

Many nations are already contributing greatly. Many can do more. And some are on the wrong track entirely. We don’t ask for favors, but neither do we grant favors. We recognize that nations follow their own best interests, as we follow ours. That means that they themselves must accelerate their efforts disrupting the networks that enable the flow of foreign fighters and material through their lands. That means joining and taking advantage of the opportunity to fight ISIL in Iraq and Syria, before it becomes a more serious threat to their public. And for Muslim-majority nations in particular, that means stepping forward and debunking ISIL’s false claims to religious or ideological excuses for brutality.

There is also an opportunity for those nations who have been on the wrong side of this fight so far – Russia and Iran. They can make a difference too by stopping their unending support for Bashar Assad – a chief instigator of radicalism and terrorism in Syria.

I have seen the strength of our coalition – and our success depends on building on that strength. During my most recent Middle East trip, I walked the flight line with German and Turkish pilots at Incirlik, Turkey, spoke with Spanish troops, United Kingdom troops, and saw NATO aircraft take to the skies to strike ISIL targets. And on the deck of the Charles de Gaulle, the French aircraft carrier, I embraced our French brothers in arms as they entered the Gulf and prepared to resume the air campaign against the terrorists who struck Paris in November.

Next week, I will meet with my counterparts, ministers of defense from six nations that are playing a significant role in both the ground and air components of the counter-ISIL campaign, and beside whom you will shortly be fighting yourselves: France, Australia, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. Each of these nations has a significant stake in completing the destruction of this evil organization, and we must include all of the capabilities they can bring to the field. And I will not hesitate to engage and challenge current and prospective members of the coalition to do more as we go forward. 

Next, let me describe the fight outside of Iraq and Syria. As we work to destroy the parent tumor in Iraq and Syria, we must also recognize that ISIL is metastasizing in areas such as North Africa, Afghanistan, and Yemen. The threat posed by ISIL, and groups like it, is continually evolving, changing focus and shifting location. It requires from us, therefore, a flexible and nimble response with a broad reach.   

And that’s why the Defense Department is organizing a new way to leverage the security infrastructure we’ve already established in Afghanistan, the Middle East, East Africa, and Southern Europe into a network to counter transnational and transregional threats like ISIL.

From the troops I visited in Morón, Spain in October, to those I visited last month in Jalalabad, those regional nodes provide forward presence to respond to a range of crises, terrorist and other kinds.

They enable our crisis response operations, counter-terror operations, and strikes on high-value targets, and they help us act decisively to prevent ISIL affiliates from becoming as great of a threat as the parent tumor itself.

This counterterrorism network is already giving us the opportunity and capability to react swiftly to incidents and threats wherever they occur, and it maximizes our opportunities to eliminate targets and leadership. An example of this network in action was our November 13th strike on Abu Nabil, where assets from several locations in the network converged to successfully kill this ISIL leader in Libya.

As we destroy the parent tumor and disrupt its metastases, we are constantly mindful of our most important mission – protecting the homeland. The Department of Defense has a supporting but very strong and active role to play within our borders, reinforcing law enforcement, homeland security, cyber defense, intelligence and more.

And I’ll continue to coordinate with my counterparts at every agency to ensure we are doing everything we can to prevent an attack, including against our military facilities here at home.

Beyond our shores we’re using all appropriate means at our disposal to disrupt potential attacks and hold accountable those who would do harm to Americans. After ISIL figures orchestrated an attack in Paris in November, President Obama vowed that we would hunt down the perpetrators. And on December 24th, our airstrikes killed Charaffe al Mouadan, a Syrian-based ISIL member with a direct link to the Paris attack cell leader. Two days later, another ISIL leader with ties to the Paris attack, Abdul Kader Hakim, was killed. Our government promised to pursue Jihadi John “to the gates of hell.” And now he is dead. We’ve made it clear that those who threaten or incite harm to Americans, wherever they are, will surely come to feel the long arm and the hard fist of justice.

Our campaign to deliver ISIL a lasting defeat, at its source and wherever it rears its head, is far from over, but the outcome is not uncertain. There will be extraordinary challenges ahead, and as I will emphasize in Paris next week, we must all do more. But our campaign will continue to adapt and build on our success, as ISIL’s territory decreases, its resources dwindle, and local, capable forces gain the capacity to not only win on the field of battle, but to lay the foundation for lasting security in the region, and a more secure future for the world.

And that’s why I am asking you to take on this challenge. The Iraqi and Peshmerga forces you will train, advise and assist have proven their determination, their resiliency, and increasingly, their capability. But they need you to continue building on that success, preparing them for the fight today and the long hard fight for their future. They need your skill. They need your experience. Often, they will need your patience.  

As you enter this complex environment and challenging mission, I’d like to leave you with two thoughts. One, I encourage you to bring fresh ideas and new perspectives to the fight. You will see things that we don’t see in Washington – and things that your commanders might not see. Opportunities that present themselves as the battlefield shifts, chances to evolve as our efforts open up new avenues and places where we can increase the pressure on ISIL. Tell your commanders, so they can tell me. We must maintain the tactical flexibility to take full advantage of these opportunities as they emerge, even as our basic strategy remains in place, and that depends on you.

And, second, know that as you embark on this noble mission, our nation is 100 percent behind you. We know what you’re putting into this, what you’re sacrificing, and what you’ll achieve. Deploy to theater knowing that you're what I wake up for every day. Thank you and thank your families for your service. Good luck to all of you. Our blessings with you and your family as you prepare to deploy on this critical mission.

Now I’d like to take the chance to look you each in the eye, shake your hand, and say that to you personally.

Thank you.