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John Kerry Testifies on War Against ISIS

Aired September 17, 2014 - 15:00   ET


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: More invasion will not protect the homeland. More invasion will not protect the homeland.

JOHN KERRY, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: So, it's important for people to understand -- it's important for people to understand there's no invasion.

The invasion was ISIL into Iraq. The invasion is foreign fighters into Syria. That's the invasion. And it is destructive to every possibility of building a state in that region. So even in a region that is virtually defined by division -- and every member of this committee understands the degree to which these divisions are deep in that region -- leaders who have viewed the last 11 years very differently have all come together for this cause.

They may agree on very little in general, but they are more unified on this subject than anything that I have seen them unified on in my career. So, as President Obama described last week when he spoke directly to the American people, we do have a clear strategy to degrade, defeat and destroy ISIL.

And it's not in its infancy. It has been well-thought-through and carefully articulated and now is being built in these coalition efforts that began with the meeting in Jeddah and moved to Paris and will move to the United Nations this week when I chair a U.N. Security Council meeting on Friday.

The United States will not go it alone. That has been a fundamental principle on which President Obama has sought to organize this effort. And that is why we're building a coalition, a global coalition. There are more than 50 countries that already have agreed or are now doing something.

Not every country will decide that their role is to have some kind of military engagement, but every country can do something. And we will show exactly what that means. And as I traveled around the region and Europe in the last days, the question that foreign leaders were asking me was not whether they should join the coalition, but how they can help.

We're also -- and I emphasize this. We're not starting from scratch. This is an effort that we have been building over time, both on our own and with the help of our international partners. Even before President Obama delivered his speech last week, nearly 40 countries had joined in contributing to the effort to strengthen the capacity of Iraq to be able to strengthen its military, to train and to provide humanitarian assistance.

We have been focused on ISIL since its inception, as the successor to al Qaeda of Iraq in 2013. And back in January, realizing that, we ramped up our assistance to the Iraqi security forces, increasing our intelligence surveillance reconnaissance, or ISR, the flights that get a better picture of the battlefield.

We expedited weapons like the Hellfire missiles for the Iraqis in order to bring their capacity to bear in this fight. Early this summer, the ISIL threat accelerated, when it effectively erased the Iraq-Syria border and the Mosul dam fell. The president acted immediately, deliberately and decisively.

We further surged the ISR missions immediately. We set up joint operation centers in Baghdad and Irbil immediately. And our special forces conducted a very detailed, in-depth assessment of Iraqi security forces and Kurdish forces.

We did that purposefully, without jumping, as some people wanted us to, because we wanted to understand, what is the capacity of the Iraqi army to fight? How many brigades, having seen what happened in Mosul, are still prepared to engage? Are we getting into something that, in fact, we don't have answers to with respect to who can do what?

And to date, we have launched -- we have supported those Iraqi security forces that, by the way, helped in the liberating of Amirli, helped in the freedom of Sinjar Mountain, helped in taking back the Mosul dam. And now we have launched more than 150 airstrikes.

And it is because of the platforms we put in place last January and even before that those strikes have been among the most precise strikes that we have ever taken. The percentage, I won't go into here, but I will tell you, you would be astonished if you heard openly now the accuracy of those efforts.

Those were put in place back in June. And those strikes have been effective in breaking the sieges that I described and beginning to move confidence back into the Iraqi military. The judgment and assessments of our military that went over there to look at the Iraqi military came back with a judgment of a sufficient number of brigades capable of and ready to fight.

And with the reconstitution of the military in a way that can bring the country together and not be divided along sectarian lines or viewed to be the army of one individual, it is entirely likely that there will be much greater and more rapid progress.

So that has given us time to put in place the two pillars of a comprehensive strategy against ISIL, an inclusive Iraqi government, which was essential. There would be no capacity for success here if we had not been able to see the Iraqi government come together.

And, secondly, the broad international coalition, so the U.S. is not alone. We redoubled our efforts, frankly, to help move the Iraqi political process forward. And we were very clear-eyed about the fact that the strategy of ISIL would only succeed if we had a strong inclusive government. And, frankly, that required transformation in the government, which the Iraqis themselves effected.

With our support and several weeks of very complex negotiations, President Massoum nominated Haider al-Abadi to serve as prime minister. And shortly thereafter, Prime Minister al-Abadi, again with our support and others, was able to form his cabinet and present it to the parliament. And last week, that government was approved.

I have to tell you, it was quite astonishing to be in Jeddah the other day with the Saudis, Emirates, the Bahrainis, the Jordanians, the Qataris, the Turks, the Lebanese and Iraqis, Iraqis in Saudi Arabia. And everybody here in this committee knows what that relationship has been like for the last years.

And to hear the foreign minister of Iraq -- who chaired the meeting, Saud Al-Faisal, say that they were prepared to open an immediate embassy in Baghdad, that's transformative. The result is something also for Iraq that has never seen before in its history, an election deemed credible by the United Nations, followed by peaceful transition of power, without any U.S. troops on the ground.

I must say, I was sort of struck yesterday. "The Wall Street Journal" that had an article talking about Arab divide, but above the Arab divide language is the Shia foreign minister of Iraq, the Kurd president of Iraq and the Sunni foreign minister of Saudi Arabia, all in communication and jointly working as never before.

So I think people need to focus on what has been accomplished here. As you know, I went to Iraq last week. I traveled. I met with the leaders of Iraq. And throughout the entire process, we have been in touch with regional leaders to ensure that the new and inclusive government is going to receive support from the region.

With this inclusive government in place, it is time for a defensive strategy that we and our international partners have pursued to get things together, get the inclusive government, know exactly where we are going to now transition to an offensive strategy, one that harnesses the capabilities of the entire world to eliminate the ISIL threat once and for all.

President Obama outlined this strategy in detail. I'm not going to go through it in that detail. But I will just quickly say -- I will be quick in walking through it.

At its core, our strategy is centered on a global coalition that will collaborate closely across a number of specific areas, including direct and indirect military support. Military assistance can come in a range of forms, from training and equipping, to logistics and airlift, and countries from inside and outside of our region are already right now providing that support in these venues.

I have also no doubt whatsoever that we will have the capabilities and resources we need to succeed militarily. And President Obama made clear that we will be expanding the military campaign to take on ISIL in Iraq, in Syria, wherever it is found.

But this is not the Gulf War in 1991. It is not the Iraq war in 2003. And that's true for a number of reasons. Number one, U.S. ground troops will not be sent into combat in this conflict. From the last decade, we know that a sustainable strategy is not U.S. ground forces.

It is enabling local forces to do what they have to do for themselves and for their country. I want to be clear. The U.S. troops that have been deployed to Iraq do not and will not have a combat mission. Instead, they will support Iraq forces on the ground as they fight for their country against these terrorists.

And, in Syria, the on-the-ground combat will be done by the moderate opposition, which serves as the current best counterweight in Syria to extremists like ISIL. We know that ISIL, as it gets weaker, the moderate opposition will get stronger. And that will be critical in our efforts to bring about the political solution necessary to address the crisis in Syria once and for all.

That's one of the reasons why it's so critical that Congress authorize the opposition train-and-equip mission when it comes to the floor. But it's also critical that the opposition makes the most of the additional support, the kind of support that they have been requesting now for years. And they need to take this opportunity to prove to the world that they can become a viable alternative to the current regime.

Number two, this is more than just a military coalition. And I want to emphasize that. In some ways, some of the most important aspects of what we will be doing are not military. This mission isn't just about taking out an enemy on the battlefield. It's about taking out a network, decimating and discrediting a militant cult masquerading as a religious movement.

It's similar to what we have been doing to al Qaeda these last years. The bottom line is, we will not be successful with a military campaign alone. And we know it. Nor are we asking every country to play a military role. We don't need every country to engage in that kind of military action. And, frankly, we're not asking them and we don't want every country to do that. Only a holistic campaign will accomplish our objectives.

In addition to the military campaign, it will be equally important for the global coalition to dry up ISIL's elicit funding. And, by the way, the Bahrainis at the meeting in Jeddah have offered to host a meeting, because they are already engaged in this, that brings people together to focus on precisely the steps we can all take to do this.

And that can positively have an impact, not just on ISIL, but on other flows of terrorism support. We have to stop the foreign fighters who carry passports from countries around the world, including the United States, to continue to deliver -- and we also need obviously to continue to deliver urgently needed humanitarian assistance.

And, finally -- and this is really -- you can't overstate this. We must continue to repudiate the gross distortion of Islam that ISIL is spreading, put an end to the sermons by extremists that brainwash young men to join these movements and commit mass atrocities in the name of God. I was very encouraged to hear that Saudi Arabia's top clerics came out

and declared terrorism a heinous crime under Sharia law and that the perpetrators should be made an example of. And I think -- I might just mention -- well, I will until we get in the Q&A. I will come back to this.

But a very important statement was made today by the top clerics in the region. And I want to come back to that, because I think it's critical.

But let me just emphasize that when we say global coalition, we mean it. And this is not -- Australia, other countries, the Far East, countries in Europe have all taken on already initial responsibilities.

So, my colleagues, we are committed to working with countries in every corner of the globe to match the campaign with the capabilities that we need to fight it. And I can tell you today that every single person I spoke to in Wales, at the Wales summit, in Jeddah, in Paris, where we had more than 30 countries and entities, they all expressed strong support for our mission and a willingness to help in some way.

We had excellent meetings. And our meetings in Baghdad and in Cairo and in Ankara also advanced the process. At the conference in Paris, we took another step towards the UNGA meetings this week.

And the UNGA meetings, unlike the meetings we have had thus far, which have all been behind closed doors, the UNGA meetings, these countries will be speaking out publicly at the United Nations Security Council, and the world will begin to see what each of these countries are prepared to do.

So we have a plan. We know the players. Our focus now is in determining what each country's role will be and how to coordinate those activities for success. Later this week, we're going to have more to say about our partners and the contributions. And we still fully expect this coalition to grow through UNGA and beyond.

One of the things that I'm most pleased about is, we have asked one of our most respected and experienced military leaders, General John Allen, to come to the State Department and oversee this effort. He came within 24 hours of being asked. He was at his desk at 7:00 in the morning and is now already laying out the campaign from a diplomatic point of view for how we coordinate what will be needed for all of these other aspects beyond the military piece.

And I had a long meeting with him yesterday, again today, and I am confident that, together with Ambassador Brett McGurk, who will serve as his deputy, and Assistant Secretary Anne Patterson, who was so much a part of our effort against al Qaeda when she was our ambassador to Pakistan, we have a very experienced group of people engaged in this effort.

The fact is, if we do this right, then this effort could actually become a model for what we can do with respect to the individual terrorist groups in other places that continue to wreak havoc on the efforts of governments to build their states and provide for their people.

And I'm confident that, with our strategy in place and our international partners by our side, we will have all that we need and, with the help of the Congress, we will be able to succeed in degrading and ultimately destroying this monstrous organization wherever it exists.

I know that was a little long, Mr. Chairman, but I wanted to lay it out. And I appreciate your patience.

SEN. ROBERT MENENDEZ (D), NEW JERSEY: Well, thank you, Mr. Secretary.

Let me start off with, I think one of the most critical lessons that we have learned from past U.S. military interventions abroad is that we must have a clear vision for the end state that we're seeking, and a coherent strategy that is focused on how not only do we enter and succeed, but how do we exit a theater of war.

So I would like to get, as succinctly as you can, a statement from you as to, what does the end goal look like? I heard you talk about taking out a network. I get that. But, beyond that, what is the political end state conditions we're seeking, so that we will know that it's time to end military action?

KERRY: Well, the military action ends when we have ended the capacity of ISIL to engage in broad-based terrorist activity that threatens the state of Iraq, threatens the United States, threatens the region. That's our goal.

And that means ending their ability to live in ungoverned spaces, have a safe haven, and be able to control territory and move at will to try to attack the United States or other places. The threat obviously right now is more immediate to the Middle East and to Europe, but we have Americans over there fighting with passports.

MENENDEZ: So, obviously, that doesn't mean we're going to look to eliminate every person who is associated with ISIL.

KERRY: We haven't been able to eliminate every person associated with al Qaeda.

MENENDEZ: Absolutely. So, then the question...


KERRY: But we have been able to reduce their capacity to mount a major attack under, you know, the circumstances that we're able to obviously guard against and engage in preventative...


MENENDEZ: In Iraq, we want a sovereign Iraq whose territorial integrity has been restored without the presence of ISIL.

KERRY: And an independent, inclusive government that's functioning.

MENENDEZ: And in Syria?

KERRY: In Syria, likewise.

We believe that, ultimately, there's no solution to Syria without a political settlement. That goal hasn't changed. But Assad has had little incentive to negotiate. The incentive that existed when I first went to Moscow last year, and President Putin and Russia agreed to support the Geneva process, regrettably got sidetracked by a number of things, one of which was infighting that began to take place in the opposition itself, two, the unexpected degree to which Assad became an extraordinary magnet for terrorists.

And that's when you began to have this amazing flow of foreign fighters who came to get rid of Assad. And as Assad gassed people and barrel-bombed people and tortured and so forth, it became more evident to those global fighters that -- and particularly to countries in the region, they were focused on whatever group could get rid of Assad.

And, unfortunately, tragically, ISIL is somewhat an outgrowth of that phenomenon. Therefore, we are today -- I think all the countries in the region have recognized that there was a mistake of judgment with respect to that process. And I think people are bending over backwards to try to rectify it.

MENENDEZ: I think members of this committee who joined together to first vote for the authorization of use of military force as President Obama was headed to the G20 summit at the time in Russia to deter Assad from using chemical weapons and who subsequently voted in a bipartisan effort to arm the vetted Syrian rebels over a year ago fully appreciate that.

It is my hope that, when we refine the definition of the end state as it relates to the campaign against ISIL, that we understand that, if I'm a moderate vetted rebel and I'm being asked to fight against ISIL now, I also will need to fight against Assad, because that's my ultimate mission.

And so, as we move forward, I would like to hear how that is coinciding. Let me ask you two other questions. I heard you very clearly when you said, we're not asking all of our partners to engage in military -- direct military actions. But I hope that there will be -- and I would like to hear from you, can we expect part of the Sunni Arab coalition members to in fact be part of military actions in this regard? Because this cannot be simply a campaign by the West against the East.

KERRY: You're absolutely correct, Mr. Chairman.

And, first of all, let me thank you, and I thank the committee, for the vote that you took, the only entity in Congress that did, and it was an affirmative vote, and we're grateful for that and respect it.

The -- currently, there are countries outside of Europe and outside of the region committed to engage in military action. There are countries in Europe committed to take military action. There are countries in the region, Arab, committed to take military action. We will have sufficient levels of commitment to take military action.

It will be up to CENTCOM and General Allen and others to work on the question of who will do what.

MENENDEZ: This is -- it's fair to say that this is going to be a multiyear effort?

KERRY: Well, certain component -- the president has been very clear about that. Certain parts of it will be, absolutely.

I can't tell you -- I can tell you this. When we took them on at Mosul dam, and the Iraqis were on the ground and took them on, we took back Mosul dam. When we took them on at Amirli, they moved out. When we took them on at Sinjar Mountain, we freed the people at Sinjar Mountain, and we have currently enabled people to be able to hold them off at Haditha dam.

And it's clear from the intelligence we pick up that what we're doing now, which has fundamentally been more defensive than offensive, has already had an impact on them. I'm convinced that, with proper effort, we can have an impact.

MENENDEZ: I don't dispute that you have had in the short-term an impact to stem their advances, at least within the region that they're in.

My question, though, is any -- no one reasonably can come from the administration and suggest that the ultimate goal, which is taking out this network, is not going to be a multiyear effort.

KERRY: It's a multiyear effort. The president has already said that.

MENENDEZ: With that as a reality, then let me turn to the AUMF.

How is it that the administration believes that -- and I support its efforts -- but how is it that the administration believes that the 9/11 AUMF or the Iraq AUMF provide the authorization to move forward, whether the Congress decides to or not?

You know, it was not too long ago that members of the administration appeared before the committee. And when I asked them, I was headed toward repealing the Iraq AUMF, and there was administration witnesses who believed that it should be repealed on behalf of the administration.

How is it that the administration now thinks it can rely upon that for legal authority.

KERRY: Mr. Chairman, how is it?

It is because good lawyers within the White House, within the State Department who have examined this extremely closely have come to the conclusion across the board that the 2001 AUMF, which says all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations or persons responsible for 9/11, those who harbored such organizations or persons to prevent future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such persons or organizations, includes al Qaeda.

It's always been interpreted as including al Qaeda and al Qaeda and...

MENENDEZ: Al Qaeda threw out ISIL.


KERRY: But al Qaeda and associated forces. That's the language, al Qaeda and associated forces.

Now, al Qaeda -- ISIL began as al Qaeda in 2005 in Iraq, 2004. ISIL was al Qaeda in Iraq. And it only became this thing called ISIL a year ago. And it only became that out of convenience to separate themselves in an internal fight, but not because their thinking changed, not because their targets changed, not because their actions changed.

They are the same people doing -- the same people that we were prepared to and were attacking for all of those years. And a mere publicity stunt to separate yourself and call yourself something else does not get you out from under the force of the United States law that is targeting...

MENENDEZ: I appreciate your ability, as a former prosecutor and gifted attorney, to try to make the case.

I will tell you that, at least from the chair's perspective, you're going to need a new AUMF. And it will have to be more tailored, because I don't want to be part of 13 years later and multitude of countries that have been used in this regard for that to be the authority.

And I think our goals are the same. I think we need to get you a different set of authorities. And I look forward to working with my colleagues.

KERRY: Not only are the goals the same, Mr. Chairman, but we know you are thinking about retooling the AUMF. And we welcome, we would like Congress -- please, do this. We want that to happen. We're not going to make our actions dependent on it happening, but we will work with you as closely as we can and should in order to tailor an AUMF going forward, and we look forward to that opportunity.

MENENDEZ: Senator Corker?

SEN. BOB CORKER (R), TENNESSEE: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

I just want to say, as I said to you personally, we have three senators, president, vice president, secretary of state, that are exercising terrible judgment right now. And to say that you're going to do this regardless of what we say, you're not going to ask for a buy-in by the United States Senate or House of Representatives on behalf of the American people in a conflict that you say is going to be multiyear, some people say a decade, taking us into another country with a different enemy, is exercising the worst judgment possible. And so I have said this to you as strongly as I can personally.

That's in essence what you are saying to the chairman right now. Saying, if Congress wants to play a constructive role, we would welcome that, to me, is a political game.

And I'm disappointed that you, as secretary of state, after being chairman of this committee, after espousing the views that you have espoused in the past, out of convenience in parsing legal words would make the statement you just made.

So, let me move on and say, I would love -- you say much has been accomplished. That's a nice photograph on the front of "The Wall Street Journal."