Pentagon: Isis ‘Beyond Anything We’ve Seen’ And Must Be Contained



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Senior Pentagon officials described the Islamic State (Isis) militant
group as an “apocalyptic” organisation that posed an “imminent threat”
on Thursday, yet the highest ranking officer in the US military said
that in the short term, it was sufficient for the United States to
“contain” the group that has reshaped the map of Iraq and Syria.

Army general Martin Dempsey, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff,
told reporters in a Pentagon briefing that while Isis would eventually
have to be defeated, the US should concentrate on building allies in the
region to oppose the group that murdered an American journalist, James
Foley.

“It is possible to contain them,” Dempsey said, in a Pentagon press
conference alongside the defense secretary, Chuck Hagel. “They can be
contained, but not in perpetuity. This is an organisation that has an
apocalyptic, end-of-days strategic vision which will eventually have to
be defeated.”

Dempsey’s comments came a day after secretary of state John Kerry
said Isis “must be destroyed” following the killing of Foley, the first
American known to have died at the hands of Isis. President Obama had
referred to the organisation as a “cancer”. Their remarks raised
expectations that the administration was preparing for a wider war aimed
at wiping out Isis, rather than stopping its advances in Iraq.

Internal administration deliberations over a response to Isis
continue, and US officials predicted that there would be little
departure from the strategy of limited airstrikes launched since 8
August. One said the military plan “may ultimately evolve”.

John Allen, a retired marine general who commanded the Afghanistan
war from 2011 to 2013, called on Barack Obama to order the destruction
of Isis. In an op-ed for the DefenseOne website, he urged the president
to “move quickly to pressure its entire ‘nervous system’, break it up,
and destroy its pieces”.

On Wednesday, six new airstrikes continued to hit Isis positions near
the Mosul Dam, three days after Obama declared that it was no longer
under Isis control. Nearly two-thirds of the 90 US strikes since 8
August have taken place near the critical dam.

In a grisly video produced by Foley’s captors, his killer says
Foley’s death came as revenge for US airstrikes in Iraq. Soon after the
video was released, the US confirmed that it had recently mounted a
failed rescue bid for Foley. Elite US military forces secretly invaded
Syria earlier this summer in a mission that involved dozens of special
operations forces from all US military services, including the 160th
special operations aviation regiment.

US forces flew into Syria in defiance of air defence batteries that
senior military officials have described as highly threatening to
pilots. Modified Black Hawk helicopters were involved, and “armed
fixed-wing aircraft and drones” provided cover to forces on the ground,
said an administration official. No hostages were found at the targeted
location.

It emerged on Thursday that Foley’s family received a message from
Foley’s captors on 13 August, warning them that he would be killed. They
passed the message on to the US government, which helped with a
response. Phil Balboni, chief executive of GlobalPost, the Boston-based
online news publication that had published work by Foley, told Reuters:
“It was an appeal for mercy. It was a statement that Jim was an innocent
journalist,” and that he respected the people of Syria, where he was
held.

Foley’s family and friends hoped the militants were bluffing and
wanted a ransom, he said. The group had last year demanded a ransom of
$132m for his rescue, Balboni said.

Disagreements within the administration are emerging about how to
deal with Isis, both on what the goals are, and how to achieve them.

Hours after a senior White House foreign-policy official, Ben Rhodes,
said the US would not be limited in its response by “geographic
boundaries”, Dempsey assessed that cross-border action was necessary to
defeat the group. At the same time, he tamped down speculation that US
warplanes would strike Isis in Syria as well as Iraq.

Isis “will have to be addressed on both sides of what is at this
point essentially a non-existent border”, Dempsey said, which would
require “a variety of instruments, only one small part of which is air
strikes. I’m not predicting those will occur in Syria, at least not by
the United States of America.”

Dempsey, an Iraq veteran, has long been sceptical of US military
involvement in the Syrian conflict, citing among other reasons the
threat to US pilots from dictator Bashar al-Assad’s air defences. He has
frustrated those who advocated American involvement in the two
neighbouring wars, such as hawkish Republican senator John McCain, who
in June called on Obama to fire Dempsey, saying he “has done nothing but
invent ways for us not to be engaged”.

Echoing the White House’s stated position, Dempsey said the US needed
“a coalition in the region that takes on the task of defeating Isis
over time”. something the administration this week has put effort into
broadening and strengthening. But the group’s ultimate defeat, the
general said, would only come “when it is rejected by the over 20
million disenfranchised Sunnis that happen to reside between Damascus
and Baghdad.”

The senior Pentagon leadership’s rhetoric on Thursday about the
threat Isis poses was as intense as its proposed options for confronting
Isis were sanguine.

“When we look at what they did to Mr Foley, what they threaten to do
to all Americans and Europeans, what they are doing now, I don’t know
any other way to describe it other than barbaric,” Hagel said. “They are
an imminent threat to every interest we have, whether it’s in Iraq or
anywhere else.”

Hagel said Isis, also kown as Isil, which began as al-Qaida’s Iraq
affiliate before being disavowed last year over its brutality, was a
calibre above previous terrorist organisations the US has faced.

“Isil is as sophisticated and well funded as any group that we have
seen. They’re beyond just a terrorist group. 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,” Hagel said.

The apparent discrepancy between the Obama administration’s
assessment of Isis’s virulence and its limited air strikes against the
group have prompted confusion about what Obama is trying to achieve. The
90 airstrikes launched since 8 August have “stalled” Isis’ momentum,
Hagel said.

“Right now, it appears to be the goal is to use minimal American
force, primarily air power, to contain Isis and hand the problem off to
Iraqi and Kurdish forces,” said Peter Mansoor, a retired army colonel
who served as executive officer to General David Petraeus during the
2007-2008 troop surge, a rare period of tactical US achievements in
Iraq.

“To me there is a significant mismatch between the goal of defeating Isis in the long run and the tools to achieve that goal.”

Mansoor, now a military history professor at the Ohio State
University, said he agreed with Dempsey that defeating Isis required
Sunnis in Iraq and Syria to turn on it, but “Isis has proven themselves
too strong, too virulent and too violent to enable local inhabitants to
rise up and cast it off without significant help from the outside.

“European nations are asking the United States for leadership in
developing a plan for defeating Isis, and this administration is failing
in its duties to protect the American people if it doesn’t create an
alliance that can not just contain Isis, but destroy it.”

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