WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama will use a visit with special operations forces on Tuesday to highlight gains the U.S. has made against extremist organizations such as the Islamic State group and to promote what he sees as the most sustainable approach to fighting such groups.
Obama will deliver his last major national security speech as president at Florida’s MacDill Air Force Base and will thank special operations forces that have played an increasingly large role in the nation’s fight against al-Qaida and the Islamic State group.
Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser, said in previewing the speech that Obama has focused on building partnerships with nations while the United States provides intelligence and training to complement a U.S.-led coalition air campaign.
“That leads to less resources being spent by the United States. That leads to significantly less casualties being taken by the United States and it also creates the long-term solution of having partners on the ground that are going to have to secure these places for themselves,” Rhodes said.
Under Obama, the number of U.S. service members in Iraq and Afghanistan has dropped from roughly 180,000 to 15,000 today, Rhodes said. Meanwhile, the U.S. has been able to take out key al-Qaida leaders, most notably Obama bin Laden, and has put IS on the path to losing its safe havens.
Yet, that approach has shown limited effectiveness in ending the violence in Syria. And some argue that the major withdrawal of U.S. forces from the region allowed for IS to expand its presence in the first place.
Rhodes said that given the history of the war in Iraq, Obama was never convinced that small-scale military action against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime would dramatically alter the equation in what is a civil war and sectarian war.
MacDill Air Force Base is the home of the U.S. Central Command and U.S. Special Operations Command. Obama wanted to use one of his final visits to highlight the work of special operations forces.
“I think he has always felt a very personal connection to the special forces community,” Rhodes said. “… He really wanted to thank this community.”