A few days ago, I visited MacDill Air Force Base to thank our service men and women for the extraordinary sacrifices they make every day to keep our nation safe. Ever since we were attacked 13 years ago, our forces at MacDill have shouldered some of the heaviest responsibilities in the challenges of this new century.
When the decision was made to go into Iraq, they were there. When we refocused the fight in Afghanistan, they were there. Some carry the wounds of these wars. Some lost friends. As Americans, we will honor their service and sacrifice forever.
Our 9/11 generation of heroes has served with skill, commitment and honor. Because our men and women in uniform have done everything we asked of them, Osama bin Laden is no more, and the core al-Qaida leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan has been decimated. In three months, our combat mission will be over, and our war in Afghanistan will come to a responsible end.
We have always known that the end of the war in Afghanistan will not mean the end of threats or challenges to America. That includes the threat of terrorism. At MacDill, I received a briefing from Gen. Lloyd Austin on our ongoing operations in Central Command, including our efforts to degrade and ultimately destroy the terrorist group known as ISIL.
Our intelligence community has not yet detected specific ISIL plots against America. But its leaders have repeatedly threatened America and our allies, and if left unchecked, they could pose a growing threat to the United States.
That is why, last month, I gave the order for our military to begin taking targeted action against ISIL. Since then, our brave pilots and crews have conducted more than 170 airstrikes against these terrorists. They've protected our personnel and facilities, killed ISIL fighters, given space for Iraqi and Kurdish forces to reclaim key territory, and helped save the lives of thousands of innocent men, women and children.
Going forward, as I announced earlier this month, we will degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy. Whether in Iraq or in Syria, these terrorists will learn what the leaders of al-Qaida already know: We mean what we say, our reach is long, and if you threaten America you will find no safe haven.
The American forces that have been deployed to Iraq do not and will not have a combat mission. As commander-in-chief, I will not commit our Armed Forces to fighting another ground war in Iraq. After a decade of massive ground deployments, we believe it's more effective to use our unique capabilities in support of partners on the ground so that they can secure their own countries' futures.
Instead, American forces will support Iraqi forces on the ground as they fight for their own country. Last week, a strong bipartisan majority in Congress also voted to support a key part of our strategy: our plan to train and equip the opposition in Syria so they can help push back these terrorists.
After all, this is not and will not be America's fight alone. That's why we continue to build a broad international coalition. France and the UK are flying with us over Iraq, others have committed to join this effort, and France has joined us in conducting strikes against ISIL in Iraq. Overall, more than 40 countries — including Arab nations — have offered assistance as part of this coalition. This includes support for Iraqi forces, strengthening the Iraqi government, providing humanitarian aid to Iraqi civilians, and doing their part in the fight against ISIL.
Between war and recession, it has been a challenging start to this new century. But I am as confident as ever that this century, like the last century, will led by America.
At home, we're bouncing back, better positioning ourselves to win the future than any nation on Earth. Abroad, we're moving forward, answering the call to lead.
And thanks to the heroes I met at MacDill last week, and patriots like them across our country, the United States of America will meet this moment, and remain the greatest force for freedom that the world has ever known.
President Barack Obama wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.