- The Washington Times - Friday, September 12, 2014

While President Obama and Secretary of State John F. Kerry have avoided using the term “war” to describe the escalation of U.S. military action against Islamic State terrorists, administration aides acknowledged Friday that the U.S. is engaged in a war.

“The United States is at war with [the Islamic State] in the same way that we are at war with al Qaeda and its al Qaeda affiliates all around the globe,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters at the White House.

At the same time, Pentagon spokesman Adm. John Kirby was telling reporters, “Make no mistake, we know we are at war with” the Islamic State.

In announcing the military escalation Wednesday night, Mr. Obama referred to the campaign as a counterterrorism operation instead of a war — a word he used in only two references to what his plan is not.

“I want the American people to understand how this effort will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Mr. Obama said. “It will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil. This counterterrorism campaign will be waged through a steady, relentless effort to take out ISIL wherever they exist using our air power and our support for partner forces on the ground.”

And in a series of interviews Thursday, Mr. Kerry avoided using the term “war” several times to describe the intensifying conflict. He said the administration’s strategy to combat the Islamic State consists of “many different things that one doesn’t think of normally in context of war.”

“What we are doing is engaging in a very significant counterterrorism operation,” Mr. Kerry said on CNN. “It’s going to go on for some period of time. If somebody wants to think about it as being a war with [the Islamic State], they can do so, but the fact is it’s a major counterterrorism operation that will have many different moving parts.”

The U.S. has conducted more than 150 air strikes against the militants in Iraq since Aug. 8, and will soon expand those strikes into Syria. In cooperation with allies, the administration wants to arm Syrian rebels to fight the militants on the ground in Syria.

Mr. Earnest said the campaign is “different than the strategies previously pursued in Iraq” and includes a broader coalition. He said the strategy for defeating the Islamic State was “consistent with the counterterrorism strategy we’ve pursued in cases all around the world.”

Administration officials also say they believe Mr. Obama’s fledgling coalition can find and train enough Syrian rebels to defeat the Islamic State, despite a new CIA assessment that the militants’ strength has grown to as many as 31,000 fighters. Earlier intelligence estimates placed the terrorist group’s strength at no more than 20,000 fighters.

“We are confident that the strategy that the president has put forward … is sufficient to meet the threat that is posed by [the Islamic State], even given the assessment that they may be able to muster a slightly larger force than was previously believed,” Mr. Earnest said.

Adm. Kirby said the new assessment doesn’t change the Pentagon’s view that “this is going to be a long-term struggle.”

“Believe me, everybody here at the Pentagon knows what we’re up against and is taking it very seriously,” he said.

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