Politics & Government

Obama: U.S. underestimated the rise of Islamic State

President Barack Obama is committing the United States to a broad military campaign to root out militants in two volatile Middle East nations, authorizing airstrikes in both Syria and Iraq that could last well after his presidency, Sept. 10, 2014. (AP Photo/Saul Loeb, Pool)
President Barack Obama is committing the United States to a broad military campaign to root out militants in two volatile Middle East nations, authorizing airstrikes in both Syria and Iraq that could last well after his presidency, Sept. 10, 2014. (AP Photo/Saul Loeb, Pool) AP

President Barack Obama said the United States underestimated the rise of the Islamic State and overestimated the Iraqi military’s ability to fight off the terrorist group in an interview Sunday night on 60 Minutes.

Obama said it was “absolutely true” that the U.S. has made a mistake when it judged both the Islamic State, also called ISIS or ISI, and the Iraqi military.

“That's true,” Obama said in answer to a question by interviewer Steve Kroft. “That's absolutely true.”

“Essentially what happened with ISIL was that you had al Qaeda in Iraq, which was a vicious group, but our Marines were able to quash with the help of Sunni tribes,” he said. “They went back underground, but over the past couple of years, during the chaos of the Syrian civil war, where essentially you had huge swaths of the country that are completely ungoverned, they were able to reconstitute themselves and take advantage of that chaos.”

Obama said after foreign fighters arrived in the region from other countries it eventually became “ground zero for jihadists around the world.”

The interview was taped at the White House on Friday and aired on Sunday night.

Obama may have underestimated the problem, but it wasn't because he didn't get a full briefing. McClatchy reported in July that in congressional testimony as far back as November, U.S. diplomats and intelligence officials made clear that the United States had been closely tracking the al Qaida spinoff since 2012, when it enlarged its operations from Iraq to civil war-torn Syria, seized an oil-rich province there and signed up thousands of foreign fighters who’d infiltrated Syria through NATO ally Turkey.

Obama declined to call this the toughest moment of his presidency despite a series of tough situations round the world.

“It’s a significant period,” he said, while mentioning the start of his presidency involved the worst recession since the Great Depression and combat troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Obama defended his decision to engage in military actions in Syria and Iraq, while reiterating again that a political solution is needed.

“We just have to push them back, and shrink their space, and go after their command and control, and their capacity, and their weapons, and their fueling, and cut off their financing, and work to eliminate the flow of foreign fighters,” Obama said.

Obama, who said again that he would not put troops on the ground, described the situation in the Middle East as the United States working with a coalition of international partners to help fight the Islamic State.

“This is not America against ISIL,” he said. “This is America leading the international community to assist a country with whom we have a security partnership with, to make sure that they are able to take care of their business.”

The United States, he said, is “assisting Iraq in a very real battle that’s taking place on their soil, with their troops, but we are providing air support.”

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