Secretary of Defense
Remarks to the XVIII Airborne Corps On the Counter-ISIL Campaign
Fort Bragg, North Carolina
Good morning, everybody. And Steve, thanks. Thanks for that introduction, for your leadership here of the storied 18th Airborne Corps. And thanks to all of you sitting here, for everything you do, every day for us.
I know that for more than year now, as Steve mentioned, you've been training hard to provide us with a global response force. I don't take that for granted, every single day. And your recent air drop in Poland shows how you can accomplish that mission. So, I just want you to know I'm very proud of you for that, what you have been doing.
But most of you will deploy soon, and not for the first time. So, you're going a long way from home, long way from Bragg, to confront a dangerous adversary. And as you do, I will do everything I can to support you in that fight, and support your families back here at home. I know they serve, too, and please thank them on my behalf, supporting you as you keep the country safe.
You're joining a historic mission, because never before in modern history have so many nations come together to confront an enemy like ISIL. And we're fighting together in different ways, across all domains, to destroy ISIL, not only in its parent tumor in Iraq and Syria, but everywhere it has spread around the world.
Today – thanks to a clear and deliberate military campaign plan, the global coalition we've built, strengthening local forces, and above all, the awesome competence and sacrifices of American soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines – we now have momentum in this fight and clear results on the ground. And now, just as this corps deployed almost a decade ago to answer the country's call, I'm calling on you, and the president, and the country and the world are counting on you to take the next steps, execute our next plays, so that we can help our partners collapse ISIL's control over Raqqa and Mosul.
Last week in Washington, I convened the leaders of our coalition, defense ministers from over two dozen countries to continue our efforts to rigorously evaluate and accelerate our campaign against ISIL. And together, we made the further plans and the further commitments – plans and commitments that you'll work with our partners to carry out with the awesome competence we expect of America's Contingency Corps. It will help ensure we deliver ISIL the lasting defeat it deserves.
So, today, as you prepare to depart, I want to talk to you a bit about the overall campaign plan itself, and how you'll be contributing to it.
Our coalition's military campaign plan has three objectives.
The first objective is to destroy ISIL's parent tumor in Iraq and Syria. As recent attacks remind us – and we've seen some just in the last 48 hours – ISIL's safe havens in those countries threaten not only the lives of the Iraqi and Syrian people, but also the security of our own citizens and those of our friends and allies. That's why the sooner we defeat ISIL in Iraq and Syria – the sooner we destroy both the fact and the idea of an Islamic State based on ISIL's barbaric ideology – the safer America will be.
But while defeating ISIL in Iraq and Syria is necessary, it's also important to remember that's not sufficient.
We know this cancer can metastasize, and in some cases it already has. We see that in multiple countries, like Afghanistan and Libya where we continue to do what we can to support our partners as they take on the ISIL threat in their countries and do our part to take on ISIL wherever it might exist. And we also see it in the intangible geography and terrain of the internet.
That's why our second objective is to combat ISIL's metastases everywhere they emerge around the world. And our third objective, a very important one, is to support our law enforcement partners, our intelligence partners, our Homeland Security partners in protecting our people here at home in our homeland.
This part January, I visited with your fellow troopers of the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell. Like you, they were getting ready to deploy and like you, they weren't the first or the only ones in this fight. And so I briefed them then on our comprehensive Coalition Military Campaign Plan recently updated then to meet those three objectives.
I was clear with them then about our campaign's strategic approach and I want to reiterate all that for you as well. Our approach is to identify and enable capable, motivated local forces who, with our strong, our mighty support, can deliver ISIL a lasting defeat. And that's because only local forces can ensure the defeat sticks. U.S. and coalition forces can enable them with our vast military power – and that's where you come in – but it's local forces who in the end must seize and hold territory. The Iraqis and Syrians must govern the territory after it's been retaken from ISIL and restore a decent life to the people who live there.
So over the last year, we've pursued a number of deliberate decisions and actions to accelerate this military campaign plan, this strategic approach to hasten ISIL's lasting defeat.
A year ago, we put our operations in Iraq and Syria under one single command, charging Lieutenant General Sean MacFarland as the overall commander and he's done an exceptional job. Now, Steve Townsend takes over. I want you to know I've known Steve for years. I admire his exceptional talent and I have total confidence in him to lead you.
Subsequent to creating the command structure under General MacFarland, last fall, we introduced an initial series of accelerants to help us gather momentum. For example, we deployed additional strike aircraft, supporting an expanded air campaign against new categories of targets, new types of targets illuminated by refined intelligence. We deployed an initial contingent of special operations forces to Syria and expanded equipping of Syrian Arab forces engaged in the fight against ISIL. As well as the training and equipping of the Iraqi security forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga. And we introduced an expeditionary targeting force and we started to expand our military campaign to every domain, including cyber and space.
While the United States has led the way with these accelerants, we also asked our coalition countries to make additional contributions to the campaign, which they did – contributing strike aircraft, special operations forces, trainers, engineers, logisticians, lift and other critical enablers.
Meanwhile, we also set in motion a series of specific and deliberate steps through the winter, the spring and now the summer – the first plays in the game – as President Obama called it.
Since then, local forces, our coalition partners, and American servicemembers have executed those plays – and more, actually – with excellence. And as a result, play by play, town after town, from every direction and in every domain, our campaign has accelerated further …squeezing ISIL and rolling it back towards Raqqa and Mosul. By isolating those two cities, we're effectively setting the stage to collapse ISIL's control over them.
You can see this in Iraq, as I saw during my visit there just a couple of weeks ago. After clearing Ramadi and establishing a staging base at Makhmur, Iraq Security Forces moved on to liberate Hit, and Rutbah and Fallujah. Then, two weeks ago, they seized the strategically important airfield in Qayyarah West, which is a critical logistical springboard for the effort to collapse ISIL's control over Mosul.
And we're also seeing results in Syria. After seizing Shaddadi – the crucial junction on the road between Mosul and Raqqa – our partners on the ground have now surrounded Manbij City, one of the last junctions connecting Raqqa to the outside world, and a key transit point for external plotters threatening our homelands. And there, we're already beginning to gain and exploit intelligence at helping us map their network of foreign fighters.
We've also been pressuring ISIL by systematically eliminating their key leaders and their financial base. In addition to taking out some of ISIL's key ministers and capturing one of the principles of ISIL's chemical warfare enterprise, we've killed over 20 of ISIL's external operators, who were plotting or seeking to inspire attacks outside of Iraq and Syria.
Wherever our local partners have moved – whether in Anbar, Nineveh or Manbij – we've taken out ISIL's field commanders. Meanwhile, we're continuing attacks on ISIL's economic infrastructure, including oil wells, trucks and cash storage sites. And we're taking the fight to ISIL in every domain, as I said, including cyberspace.
Those are real results. Thanks to the hard work and sacrifice of our local partners and our service members, and additional coalition contributions, we've seized opportunities, reinforced success and taken the fight to the enemy. But we're not going to rest – and that's why you're going to build on those results. Continue to take the fight to the enemy, gather more momentum and help deliver ISIL the lasting defeat it deserves – and I have every confidence you will.
Last week, with our coalition partners, we developed and agreed on our next set of plays. And while I can't release the details in public yet – you all know them. As you can imagine, we don't want the enemy to know too much about what we're doing, and what we're thinking, and where we're going and when – I want to broadly describe the basic elements to you today, since you'll be helping lead the execution of these plays.
In Syria, our actions will focus on shutting down the last remaining paths for ISIL fighters to move into and out of that country, particularly when it comes to their external operators. So, we'll seek to expand on our recent gains of our local, capable partners in Manbij City and along the Mar’a Line to help them broaden their control over that key terrain. And in addition, we will aggressively pursue opportunities to build pressure on ISIL in Syria from the south, complementing our existing robust efforts from northeastern Syria. This, of course, will have the added benefits of helping the security of our Jordanian partners, and further splitting the Syria Theater of operations from the Iraqi theater of operations.
In Iraq, we will continue enabling the dedicated Iraqi Security Forces and Peshmerga, led by Prime Minister Abadi and supported by Kurdish Regional President Barzani, working by, with and through the Iraqi government, as we always have.
Our actions in western Iraq will focus on enabling the Iraqi security forces under the direction of Prime Minister Abadi to pursue mopping up operations along the Euphrates River Valley – in order to clear the remaining pockets of ISIL presence, push the ISIL threat further away from Baghdad and help the government of Iraq reassert not only full sovereignty over its borders, but also control over some of its main lines of communications. In the north, we will continue to help the Iraqi Security Forces clear the remaining pockets of ISIL control along the Tigris River Valley. Simultaneously, we'll help the Iraqi Security Forces, including the Kurdish Peshmerga – to refit and generate the forces and logistical footprint necessary to isolate and pressure Mosul.
Meanwhile, as this isolation and pressure on Raqqah and Mosul builds from the outside in, our partners will continue to reach deep inside those cities to enable pressure on ISIL from the inside out. All these plays, once executed, will culminate in the collapse of ISIL's control over the cities of Mosul and Raqqah.
The United States in the 18th Airborne Corps will be critical to all of this, essential to all of this. As Lieutenant General Townsend and all of you take the handoff from Lieutenant General McFarland and his headquarters elements from III Corps, we'll expect from you all the same high degree of initiative and creativity that Sean and his team have shown. But – and I say this once again, having known and admired Steve for many years now – he's more than up to this task. And I know that Command Sergeant Major Jones and all of you are, too.
Of course, while we lead a global coalition, your role in the strategy is to enable but not to substitute for local forces in Iraq and Syria. And the good news is they've been doing well, building momentum. So you're going to help them do even better by leveraging all of our awesome capabilities – airstrikes, special forces, intelligence equipment, mobility, logistics, training, advice, assistance from those on the ground – including you, which is our most important asset, you because you'll help make sure that when things don't go to plan that we rapidly adapt, we innovate, we overcome.
You'll also be working with a global coalition that's contributing more and more to the fight. Since February, coalition nations – including the United States of course, thanks to President Obama's consistent and timely support – have provided even more support to accelerate the campaign as our local partners have made advances. In fact, two-thirds of coalition members have pledged or already made additional military contributions since then, while many others have contributed vital economic, political and humanitarian support.
And we're all going to be doing even more. For the United States part, President Obama decided to deploy an additional 560 troops just a couple weeks ago to support the ISF in their offensive to retake Mosul. And when I was in Iraq earlier this month, I offered to Prime Minister Abadi to share some of our hard-earned expertise in countering improvised explosive devices with the Iraqi Security Forces. These are just some examples.
And other nations are following our lead in making additional commitments as well. France is sending back the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle to carry out airstrikes against ISIL. Australia will be expanding their training of Iraqi police and border guards, which are going to be vital to security in Iraq after ISIL's defeat. And the United Kingdom recently announced it would deploy more trainers and engineers to Iraq as well.
And now, of course, even when we win this fight – and let there be no doubt, we will – there will still be much more to be done. There will be towns to rebuild, services to reestablish and communities to restore. Such progress is critical to ensuring that ISIL, once defeated, stays defeated, so that our partners' gains are made irreversible. And so, it's vitally important that when that time comes, just as our partners must make the political and economic changes necessary to ensure ISIL's lasting defeat, the international community must ensure that the Iraq and Syrian people have what they need to hold, stabilize and govern their own territory.
For that reason, the international coalition stabilization and governance efforts cannot be allowed to lag behind our military progress behind your progress. And I want you to know that Secretary Kerry and I made that point clear to all of our counterparts when we met with them last week. And it's the State Department, USAID and their coalition counterparts that will be working with Iraqis and the Syrians to provide the humanitarian aid, support immediate stabilization and promote longer- term recovery. And – not unlike how our military campaign has relied on contributions from across our coalition – this, too, must continue to be an international effort. Every member of the global coalition to defeat ISIL should be contributing to help the Iraqi and Syrian people stabilize, rebuild and recover from the scourge and the brutalization that is ISIL.
Now, as I said earlier, destroying ISIL's parent tumor in Iraq and Syria is necessary, and will be done. But it's not sufficient. That's why, as you enable our partners to expel ISIL from more and more territory in those countries, we're going to continue working more and more with our coalition partners to both combat ISIL wherever else it might attempt to terrorize or take hold in the world, and to ensure that our military campaign does everything possible to best support our national governments' efforts to protect our homelands and our people.
Destroying the fact and the idea of an Islamic State based on ISIL's barbaric ideology will not be easy. The more ground ISIL loses in Iraq and Syria, the more they'll do whatever it takes to cling to their perverse veil of legitimacy and power. We and our partners cannot and will not let them. We must deny them the satisfaction of being able to advance their twisted goals. We must keep systematically eliminating every key leader we find, and we must deny them safe haven wherever they may seek it – from physical terrain to cyber space, because that's what's necessary to keep our country safe.
And as you, our servicemembers, and our coalition and local partners pursue our next plays, your commanders and I will continue to look at what more we can do in every domain – from every direction, day in and day out – to create and seize opportunities to further accelerate our campaign and to hasten the lasting defeat that ISIL deserves. As President Obama said, “We constantly examine our strategy to determine when additional steps are needed to get the job done.” And I want to assure you that you will get what you need to succeed.
To be sure, there will be tough work and difficult days ahead, but we have the right campaign plan, the most capable commanders, motivated partners who are growing in strength, and –most importantly – we have you.
As part of the finest force the world has ever known, you are fighting a truly barbaric enemy in a stark campaign. Generation after generation, the American military an indeed the XVIII Airborne Corps, has met the challenges asked of them. All of you are doing the same. This is a fight that must be won, can be won, and will be won thanks to you and the many American service members like you.
So thank you again for what you do. And just as importantly, for how you do it and what you stand for. You're incredibly competent of course, but you also conduct yourselves in a way that makes us proud. You don't intimidate, you don't coerce, you don't exclude, you work with allies and partners to ensure a better world for our children. That's one more reason why we're going win. That's why ISIL and it's barbaric ideology are going to lose.
You're example, your service, and your daily sacrifices and those of your families are never lost on me. You will forever have my and our nation's profound gratitude.
Good luck to all of you. I will see you over there.