WASHINGTON — In declaring that the United States would degrade and "ultimately destroy" an al-Qaida offshoot in Iraq and Syria, President Barack Obama articulated an objective that the United States has yet to achieve against any of the Islamist adversaries it has faced since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Through two wars, thousands of drone strikes and hundreds of covert operations around the world, the United States has substantially weakened al-Qaida and its affiliates, eroding their capabilities in ways that have reduced the threat they pose to the United States.
The scope of that conflict is poised to expand again as U.S. military officials said Thursday that they were given new authority to begin targeting leaders of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
A day after Obama's speech, details of how the Pentagon will pursue the new offensive began to emerge Thursday. U.S. military officials said they have new authority to carry out strikes against the group's leaders, including Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who earlier this year declared himself the head of a restored caliphate.
Such targets had been off-limits under the more narrow terms of an air campaign that Obama had described as a humanitarian effort to protect members of religious minorities and shield American diplomats from ISIS fighters.
Pentagon officials described their altered mission as a shift to offense from defense. "We're going to intensify our efforts inside Iraq, there's no question about that," said Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary.
In remarks to reporters Thursday, Kirby declined to answer directly when asked whether the Pentagon now had a green light to hunt down individuals, but he said: "One of the ways you get at and you destroy the capabilities of an enemy like ISIL is to be pretty aggressive against them. And that does include disrupting their ability to command and control, and to lead their own forces."
Kirby said the 475 additional U.S. troops that Obama ordered to Iraq will arrive over "the next week or so." Among them are a detachment of about 125 personnel who will operate armed U.S. surveillance aircraft for the first time from Irbil, the capital of Iraq's semiautonomous Kurdish region. Kirby said that officials are still considering which types of aircraft to send to Irbil but that the fleet will not include drones.
Obama has not yet authorized the U.S. Central Command to conduct offensive combat operations in Syria, the Los Angeles Times reported, citing two senior defense officials.
CentCom's commander, Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, has been granted the authority to expand the U.S. effort in Iraq to offensive operations, but that authority has yet to be extended to Syria, the officials said. Austin's authority for Iraq operations was explicit in Obama's national address Wednesday, the officials said, and official written authority, called an execution order, is expected to reach Austin from the Joint Chiefs of Staff sometime next week, a defense official told McClatchy. CentCom operates out of MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa.
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Congress was largely receptive Thursday to Obama's plan, but lawmakers are divided on the details, and it's not clear how quickly they will act on his push to arm and train moderate Syrian rebels.
Obama did get backing from House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who are crucial for Obama as he seeks congressional authorization to the training in Syria.
"At this point in time it's important that we give the president what he's asking for," Boehner said. "The issue here is about defeating a terrorist threat that is real and imminent."
Boehner told reporters that, while he'll support the president's plan, there is still skepticism among his fellow Republicans.
House leaders said there could be a vote as soon as Tuesday on Obama's $500 million request to authorize training and arming of Syrian rebels.
The campaign is aimed at a terrorist group whose rapid expansion and brutal tactics have alarmed Western security officials, although there is significant confusion and debate over how significant a threat it poses to the United States. ISIS has seized cities in Syria and northern Iraq and amassed cash and weapons at a rate eclipsing any al-Qaida rival. But so far it has not been tied to a transnational terror plot.
Obama conceded that point during his speech, but he warned of a growing danger if it is left unchecked.
But even as Obama warned that "it will take time to eradicate a cancer" like ISIS, the timing of his remarks — coming 13 years after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon — underscored how elusive the finish line has been for the United States in a series of conflicts that have come to resemble a permanent war.
"We're not going to see an end to this in our lifetime," said Charles F. Wald, a retired Air Force general who oversaw the start of the air war in Afghanistan in 2001. Airstrikes and ground operations by allies can degrade ISIS and force it to surrender its territorial gains, Wald said. "This is what the world is going to be like for us for a long time."