In an Aug. 22 press briefing, Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon’s Press Secretary, attempted to defend President Barack Obama’s poorly timed statement in January where he referred to the Islamic State as a “jayvee team.” This is what Obama had said in an interview with The New Yorker while answering a question on the resurgence of jihadist groups in Iraq:
The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant. I think there is a distinction between the capacity and reach of a bin Laden and a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian.
Below is the reporter’s question about equating the Islamic State to “a junior varsity team,” and Kirby’s answer:
Q: In January, the president equated ISIL’s capabilities to that of a junior varsity team, so, which seems to be in direct contrast with what the secretary said yesterday. I was wondering if there had been new analysis or done to get to the secretary to that position?
And does that mean that ISIS is getting stronger?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I would make a couple of points. One I would point you to what the president said yesterday or the day before about ISIL and the threat that they posed, as well as comments made by Secretary Kerry, and of course you’ve heard what Secretary Hagel said. I think everybody has the same view here about the threat posed by ISIL not just to Iraq, but to the region.
There’s no divergence. This is August. You’re talking about comments that were made in January. ISIL — and we’ve been watching this for months. They have grown in capability. I’ve said it from the podium as have others. They have grown in capability with speed, helped along by resourcing from some of their own criminal activity, as well as donations and ransoms and helped along by a sanctuary that they have in Syria. So, we’ve all been watching this. They have advanced in capability. And we — we saw the speed with which they gained ground and held ground in northern Iraq earlier this summer.
So, it’s a — the real answer to your question is, it’s a constantly changing, fluid situation, and their threat continues to grow. And that’s what led us to where we are today, which is that we believe it does pose an imminent threat, and it’s a threat that we need to take seriously.
Kirby is defending the indefensible. The Obama administration and Kirby would be better served admitting that it was a mistake to underestimate the Islamic State. As a senior military officer, he knows that it is impossible for the Islamic State to have gained the capacity to take on two states (Iraq and Syria) and control large regions in both countries in the span of just eight months.
Those of us who have been watching the Islamic State (previously known as al Qaeda in Iraq, Islamic State of Iraq, and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham) have warned that the group has been gaining in strength since 2012. For example, this deadly raid on Haditha in March 2012 shows that the group had regrouped and developed the capacity train, plan for, and execute sophisticated operations against Iraqi security forces.
Watch the video linked above that shows the Islamic State’s assault on Haditha in 2012. The tactics used in that attack weren’t developed over the past eight months. These tactics have been on display in both Iraq and Syria over the past three years. The alarm bells should have been ringing in the Obama administration once the Islamic State seized Fallujah and several areas in Anbar province in January. Instead, the president grossly understated the Islamic State’s abilities. And today, administration officials are referring to the group as a dangerous global threat while the military is launching airstrikes against the group daily and is planning to expand its operations, possibly into Syria.
Administration and military officials shouldn’t bristle when asked why they failed to properly assess that danger of the Islamic State. They should admit their mistake and articulate a strategy to defeat the group. Even if a new strategy contradicts previous campaign promises to end the war in Iraq.