Is Obama Underestimating ISIL?

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When President Barack Obama on Wednesday announced that the U.S. would increase its airstrikes targeting the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS), as well as militants in Syria, he didn’t call the actions a declaration of war. But should they be?

In light of the murders of two American journalists, Jim Foley and Steven Sotloff, all eyes were on Obama to see how strong the American response would be to the increasingly violent militant group. The president is well aware of the vial actions of ISIL, calling the organization “unique in its brutality” in his speech. “In a region that has known so much bloodshed, these terrorists are unique in their brutality,” he said. “They execute captured prisoners. They kill children. They enslave, rape, and force women into marriage. They threatened a religious minority with genocide.” And, yes, in response, the U.S. will be stepping up its military response.

Along with the increased airstrikes, additional American forces in Iraq “will help Iraqi and Kurdish forces with the training, intelligence and equipment they need to take the fight to these terrorists on the ground,” according to the president’s weekly address. “We’re working with Congress to expand our efforts to train and equip the Syrian opposition,” Obama said. “We’ll continue to strengthen our defenses here at home. And we’ll keep providing the humanitarian relief to help Iraqi civilians who have been driven from their homes and who remain in extreme danger.”

When pressed, his press secretary said that it was, in a sense, indeed a war. “The United States is at war with ISIL in the same way we are at war with al Qaeda and its affiliates,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said. He noted that it’s not a war that the U.S. is declaring, though, but rather a response to the war ISIL has been waging against the world. “ISIS has indicated they’re ready to go to war against the world,” Earnest said. “This president, as is expected of American presidents, is stepping up.”

Others aren’t as willing to label it as such. “I don’t think people need to get into war fever on this. I think they have to view it as a heightened level of counter-terrorist activity,” Secretary of State John Kerry Kerry said to CBS, “but it’s not dissimilar to what we’ve been doing the last few years with al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan and in Yemen and elsewhere.”

Obama’s planned response is taking a step beyond the humanitarian aid that the initial airstrikes in early August were presented to be — then a response to prevent a “potential act of genocide” and now working with the goal to “degrade and ultimately destroy the terrorist group known as ISIL.”

Obama’s Wednesday speech acknowledged the threat that ISIL presents to the world, including Americans. “We continue to face a terrorist threat,” he said. “We can’t erase every trace of evil from the world, and small groups of killers have the capacity to do great harm. That was the case before 9/11, and that remains true today. And that’s why we must remain vigilant as threats emerge.” However, many question whether the Obama administration’s plans will be effective in containing ISIL.

ISIL has been in existence, under different variations of its name, for years and has been ascending into power rapidly. It was born in the early 2000s and “can muster between 20,000 and 31,500 fighters across Iraq and Syria, based on a new review of all-source intelligence reports from May to August, an increase from our previous assessment of at least 10,000 fighters,” according to a CIA spokesperson who spoke to Time magazine.

Only a month ago, the U.S. was estimating ISIL’s numbers at half of that. Whether the original numbers were off or not, the organization is still growing. The CIA spokesperson also said more than 15,000 foreign fighters from 80 countries have traveled to Syria to fight with ISIL. Those numbers are certainly foreboding, and the CIA spokesperson noted to Time that 2,000 of the foreign fighters are most likely Westerners.

And yet, the U.S. has only just sat down to create a plan for response, leaving many wondering whether the government had seriously assessed an organization that even al Qaeda disavowed. “In comparison to bin Laden’s al Qaeda network of 2001, ISIS appears to be far more formidable,” Victor Davis Hanson of the Hoover Institution writes. “Huge swaths of Syria and Iraq are now under de facto ISIS control — a far greater territory than ever enjoyed by Osama bin Laden.”

Land is the United States’ focus. Kerry said that the key to dismantling ISIL is taking back territory in Iraq. “You have to deny them the capacity to own an entire village that belongs to Iraq or a town or a city,” he said to CBS. “ISIL will be very isolated and there are other means that will be brought to apply to them both there and Syria, elsewhere, that will diminish their ability to be able to threaten the United States, Europe, the region and particularly Iraq.”

Obama is already being criticized — particularly by Republicans — for leading the country in a reactionary way. He has been described as not wanting to be a war president and has more or less admitted to that himself, saying before the U.S. response to ISIL began that he did not want to engage in another war in Iraq.

In his weekly address, Obama said, “What’s needed now is a targeted, relentless counterterrorism campaign against ISIL that combines American air power, contributions from allies and partners, and more support to forces that are fighting these terrorists on the ground.” Clearly, he hopes those actions will be enough to remove ISIL from power and weaken its claim on land in Iraq and Syria.

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