Mattis: Trump strategy aims to 'annihilate' ISIS

Mattis: Trump strategy aims to 'annihilate' ISIS
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Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Friday that new tactics approved by President Trump to defeat Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) fighters have thrown the terrorist group on “their back foot.”

Speaking during a Pentagon press conference, Mattis said the U.S.-led coalition was increasing its pressure on ISIS by encircling fighters in their “strongholds.”

“[Trump] directed a tactical shift from shoving ISIS out of safe locations in an attrition fight to surrounding the enemy in their strongholds so we can annihilate ISIS,” Mattis said.

He explained that by “taking the time up front to surround these locations, instead of simply shoving them from one to another” coalition forces are able to “carry out the annihilation campaign so we don't simply transplant this problem from one location to another.”

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Speaking alongside Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford and Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS Brett McGurk, Mattis noted that commanders have been given greater authority to move quickly in the fight without first seeking approval from Washington.

“We have changed, tactically, how we're going to carry it out. We have accelerated the campaign and that's shown up clearly in our tactical reports that are coming in,” Mattis said.

During the Pentagon conference, Mattis’ second since his January swearing in, the three outlined progress in the campaign against ISIS, a fight that began in 2014. At that time, the U.S.-led coalition primarily used airstrikes to attack ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria. The fight has since grown to include thousands of U.S. troops on the ground in the two countries as advisers.

Dunford said the coalition, working alongside Turkish and partnered forces, has cleared “ISIS elements” from the Turkish-Syrian border, stemming the flow of foreign fighters, weapons and money to ISIS's front lines.

“We estimate that, at its peak, foreign fighter flow in Iraq and Syria was 1,500 fighters per month. And today we estimate that those numbers are less than 100 per month,” Dunford said.

McGurk, meanwhile, said the ability to quickly make a decision without seeking approval in Washington has “made a difference.”

When asked by a reporter whether this was a major change in tactics compared to previous efforts, Mattis declined to answer. He said instead it was a decision made by Trump “for an accelerated campaign, for one that includes surrounding the enemy so they can't get out.”

“Those are the changes that were going forward,” he added. “The campaign designed end state remains the same; to destroy ISIS. But no longer will we have slowed decision cycles because Washington D.C. has to authorize tactical movements on the ground.”

He declined to put a timeline on defeating ISIS, calling it a “transnational, long-term threat.”

Mattis would also not address how long he expects U.S. troops to remain a presence in Syria, adding, “that's not our intent. We're there to drive ISIS to its knees.”

In addition, Mattis said he had not yet made recommendations to Trump on how many more U.S. troops are needed in Afghanistan.

“That recommendation is being put together by the chairman and myself, and I expect it'll go to decision very, very soon,” he offered.

The administration is considering the deployment of an additional 3,000 to 5,000 troops to Afghanistan to join the roughly 8,400 U.S. troops there already to train, advise and assist Afghan forces in their fight against the Taliban, and conduct counterterrorism missions against groups such as al Qaeda and ISIS.