President Obama said on a rare visit to the Pentagon Monday that he isn’t planning to send more U.S. troops to Iraq to fight the Islamic State, saying local forces must prevail against the extremist group.
“There are no current plans to do so,” Mr. Obama said when asked if he plans to beef up the more than 3,000 non-combat U.S. troops now in Iraq. “The strong consensus is … we have to develop local security forces that can sustain progress. If we try to do everything ourselves all across the Middle East and all across North Africa, we’ll be playing Whack-a-Mole.”
Mr. Obama spoke after a personal afternoon briefing with top commanders on the troubled status of the campaign against Islamic State and the larger violence plaguing the Middle East. He admitted the fight against Islamic State and other terrorist forces will be long and not always smooth.
Iraqi security forces have lost key territory to the Islamic State this year in Sunni-majority regions of the country, as the central government has failed to recruit Sunni fighters in the campaign. The president insisted Monday the government in Baghdad is doing a better job lately in recruitment of troops.
“This aspect of our strategy was moving too slowly,” Mr. Obama said. “We’re speeding up training of local forces. More Sunni volunteers are coming forward.”
But Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, Arizona Republican, said Mr. Obama is engaging in “self-delusion” about the war against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.
“There is no compelling reason to believe that anything we are currently doing will be sufficient to degrade and ultimately defeat ISIL,” Mr. McCain said. “None of the so-called progress that the president cited suggests that we are on a path to success, and when you are not winning in warfare, you are losing.”
The president devoted much of his comments after the Pentagon briefing to the threat of attacks on the U.S. homeland by “lone wolf” terrorists who may be inspired by the lslamic State’s online propaganda. Extremists have called on followers to carry out violent attacks during the fasting month of Ramadan.
“We’re going to have to pick up our game to prevent these attacks,” the president said, adding that he expects Muslim communities in the U.S. to “step up.”
“It’s going to be up to Muslim communities … to protect their sons and daughters from recruitment,” Mr. Obama said.
But he also said the threat of violent extremism “is not restricted to any one community,” and pointed to the mass shootings at a black church last month in South Carolina, allegedly committed by a young white man with racist motivations.
“Here in the United States, we have seen all kinds of home-grown terrorism and tragically recent history reminds us how even a single individual motivated by a hateful ideology with access to dangerous weapons can inflict horrendous harm on Americans,” Mr. Obama said.
The president’s meeting with Pentagon brass came a month after he angered some top military officials by saying that they had no strategy yet for training and equipping Iraqi security forces. On Monday, Mr. Obama listed a half-dozen examples of the Islamic State losing battles in Iraq and Syria “when we have an effective partner on the ground.”
He said the U.S.-led coalition is providing more anti-tank weapons to Iraqis and speeding up training of local forces.
“I made it clear to my team that we will do more to train and equip the moderate opposition in Syria,” he said.
Mr. Obama and his aide also called on Senate Republicans to move forward with a confirmation hearing for Adam Szubin, who was nominated by the president in April to serve as the Treasury Department’s undersecretary for terrorism and financial crimes.
“Senate Republicans haven’t event scheduled a hearing,” Mr. Earnest said. “It’s time for Republicans in the Senate to do their jobs for a change.”
Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said Monday that an uptick in airstrikes in Syria over the weekend is the result of coalition air power supporting recent successes by Kurdish forces on the ground. Recent success by Kurdish forces in Syria have allowed the U.S. to make more strikes that limit the movement of terrorist fighters, he said during a joint briefing with French Minister of Defense Jean-Yves Le Drian.
Mr. Le Drian affirmed France’s commitment to the fight against the Islamic State, saying that the group has proven it can now succeed at both traditional warfare and urban tactics.
“It is no longer a terrorist group. It has become a terrorist army,” he said through a translator.