Airstrikes Not Enough to Defeat ISIL, Hagel Says

Iraqi Shiite fighters prepare to fight ISIL militants in Jurf al-Sakhar, on Monday.

Hadi Mizban/AP

AA Font size + Print

Iraqi Shiite fighters prepare to fight ISIL militants in Jurf al-Sakhar, on Monday.

Defense Secretary Hagel said the U.S. would continue to attack the Islamic State and keep all options open, but the Pentagon is looking for greater regional support and nonmilitary means. By Kevin Baron

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the Islamic State group is “beyond just a terrorist group,” and has become a 9/11-level threat to the United States, but the U.S. military’s mission to defeat them will remain limited – for now.

ISIL is as sophisticated and well-funded as any group that we have seen. They’re beyond just a terrorist group,” Hagel said the Pentagon on Thursday. “They marry ideology, a sophistication of strategic and tactical military prowess. They are tremendously well funded. Oh, this is beyond anything that we’ve seen. So we must prepare for everything, and the only way you do – you take a cold, steely hard look at it and get ready.”

It is a stark warning from the Pentagon boss, coming amid a week in which President Barack Obama has escalated the air campaign against IS fighters, arguably beyond the originally stated mission of humanitarian aid or protecting threatened U.S. personnel or facilities in Iraq. Hagel unleashed an unsparing characterization of the IS group as “barbaric,” in response to their beheading of American journalist Jim Foley. The group has threatened to execute another journalist if Obama does not cease the attacks.

“This is an organization that has an apocalyptic, end-of-days strategic vision and which will eventually have to be defeated,” said Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey.

However both of President Barack Obama’s Pentagon leaders were careful to tread lightly on questions about the military’s role, explaining that while airstrikes alone would not be not enough to defeat the Islamic State group, neither would any amount of military power. Defeating IS requires much more, they said, invoking a whole-of-government operation with a coalition of foreign militaries. It is a position reflective, in part, of the way the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were fought, and echoes Hagel and Dempsey’s repeated warnings against sending the U.S. military to intervene in the Syrian civil war.

“Military kinetic actions, airstrikes, are part of that,” Hagel said of the mission against IS. “But it’s bigger than just a military operation. And our efforts as we have executed the president’s strategy on this are specifically targeted, just as the president has said for the reasons he said.” Hagel said the U.S. is working with Iraqi forces, Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, European allies and across the U.S. government. “But it isn’t going to just come as a result of airstrikes. Strategically, there are limits to how much you can accomplish with airstrikes.”

“Yes, the answer is they can be contained,” Dempsey said of the group, but “not in perpetuity.”

The Joint Chiefs chairman said that defeating the Islamic State will require a local coalition willing to engage the group’s fighters inside of Syria, as well as counter the influence of their ideology across the region – a movement and partnership that has not yet materialized.

“That will come when we have a coalition in the region that takes on the task of defeating ISIS over time. ISIS will only truly be defeated when it’s rejected by the 20 million disenfranchised Sunnis that happen to reside between Damascus and Baghdad,” he said.

Fighters in Iraq have complained they are not receiving adequate U.S. military aid, especially heavier firepower –- a protest Syrian moderate rebels have voiced for years, saying the firepower U.S. leaders pledged to provide has not come.

Hagel defended the rising levels of aid given to Iraq this year. “Well, first of all, we are providing a tremendous amount of military assistance to the Peshmerga through the Iraqi security forces. It is one country,” he said. “And there is no question that we have accelerated — as a matter of fact, all year long we have been accelerating all the requests made by the Iraqi government for legal assistance and equipment. And we continue to do that.”

The secretary also said that the U.S. military’s failed attempt to rescue hostages in Syria was “flawless,” despite the fact that the hostages weren’t there when troops arrived to try and save them.

“The fact is,” he said, “as you all know, intelligence doesn’t come wrapped in a package with a bow.”

Close [ x ] More from DefenseOne

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Software-Defined Networking

    So many demands are being placed on federal information technology networks, which must handle vast amounts of data, accommodate voice and video, and cope with a multitude of highly connected devices while keeping government information secure from cyber threats. This issue brief discusses the state of SDN in the federal government and the path forward.

  • Military Readiness: Ensuring Readiness with Analytic Insight

    To determine military readiness, decision makers in defense organizations must develop an understanding of complex inter-relationships among readiness variables. For example, how will an anticipated change in a readiness input really impact readiness at the unit level and, equally important, how will it impact readiness outside of the unit? Learn how to form a more sophisticated and accurate understanding of readiness and make decisions in a timely and cost-effective manner.

  • Cyber Risk Report: Cybercrime Trends from 2016

    In our first half 2016 cyber trends report, SurfWatch Labs threat intelligence analysts noted one key theme – the interconnected nature of cybercrime – and the second half of the year saw organizations continuing to struggle with that reality. The number of potential cyber threats, the pool of already compromised information, and the ease of finding increasingly sophisticated cybercriminal tools continued to snowball throughout the year.

  • A New Security Architecture for Federal Networks

    Federal government networks are under constant attack, and the number of those attacks is increasing. This issue brief discusses today's threats and a new model for the future.

  • Information Operations: Retaking the High Ground

    Today's threats are fluent in rapidly evolving areas of the Internet, especially social media. Learn how military organizations can secure an advantage in this developing arena.


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.