White House national security adviser John Bolton defended President Donald Trump’s much-scrutinized claims about the US military’s progress against the Islamic State.
Bolton said on ABC’s “This Week” that Trump had been “as clear as clear can be” when speaking about progress made defeating the Islamic State Caliphate, or the territory held by the group in Iraq and Syria.
Officials have previously deemed Trump’s announcements claiming US victory over ISIS as premature at the least.
“The president has been, I think, as clear as clear can be when he talks about the defeat of the ISIS territorial Caliphate,” Bolton told Martha Raddat. “He has never said that the elimination of the territorial Caliphate means the end of ISIS in total. We know that’s not the case.”
Host Martha Raddatz asked Bolton about Trump’s comment last month that 100% of the territory previously held by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria had been taken back by the US military. The president had also declared victory over ISIS just two months earlier.
Lawmakers and military officials were quick to speak out about both of these claims.
Bolton continued: “We know right now that there are ISIS fighters scattered still around Syria and Iraq and that ISIS itself is growing in other parts of the world. The ISIS threat will remain.”
Raddatz also referenced comments from Gen. Joseph Votel, the commander of US troops in the Middle East, made to the House Armed Services Committee last week, in which he urged, despite the president’s victorious claim, “the fight against ISIS and violent extremism is far from over.”
“While ISIS has been battered by the Syrian Democratic Forces and coalition forces, we should be clear in our understanding that what we are seeing now is not the surrender of ISIS as an organization but a calculated decision to preserve the safety of their families and preservation of their capabilities by taking their chances in camps for internally displaced persons, and going to ground in remote areas and waiting for the right time for a resurgence,” Votel said.
When Raddatz asked if he agreed with Votel, Bolton said he wouldn’t “criticize” the soundbites of Votel’s comments.
Trump initially declared victory over ISIS in December when he announced that he would withdraw US troops from Syria. The White House walked back the claim amid blowback from lawmakers in both parties.
“We have defeated ISIS in Syria,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “My only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency.”
Though the Caliphate is a finite area of power for the group and a tangible goal for military forces to focus on, initial victories don’t guarantee overall defeat of the Islamic State, Defense Secretary James Mattis told reporters at the Pentagon in December 2018.
“Getting rid of the Caliphate doesn’t mean you then blindly say, ‘OK, we got rid of it,’ march out, and then wonder why the Caliphate comes back,” Mattis said. “How many times have we seen — look at even Iraq where they’re still on the hunt for them. And they’re still trying to come back.”