Pentagon Chief Sees Ramping Up of War Against ISIS

U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter speaks during a news conference with his British counterpart, Michael Fallon, at Lancaster House in London on October 9. Jonathan Brady/Reuters

By the strictest legal definition, only the legislative branch can approve a declaration of war. In practice, the war on terror has been spurred mostly by the executive branch, thanks to post-9/11 measures that authorize the president to use force against groups posing threats to U.S. national security. Speaking to MSNBC early Thursday morning, Defense Secretary Ash Carter acknowledged that America is at war with the Islamic State militant group (ISIS).

"We have to defeat ISIL. We will defeat ISIL," Carter said when asked how he could assure the public that the administration has an effective strategy to combat the militant group. (The Obama administration refers to the group as ISIL rather than ISIS. ISIS prefers the Islamic State; in Europe and the Middle East, the preferred nomenclature is Daesh.)

"The president has indicated he's prepared to do more, including on the ground," Carter added.

U.S. airstrikes recently targeted oil rigs and other infrastructure controlled by ISIS. The group funds itself primarily through black market sales of oil and Middle Eastern antiquities, as well as extortion of resources from the peoples and lands it controls.

Carter noted that the targeting of oil extraction resources had begun before the ISIS attacks on Paris last week that left at least 129 people dead. (Presumably, the administration was not spurred to action by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, whose primary campaign talking point about national security has been to suggest bombing oil fields in Iraq.) The administration has long hesitated to attack oil infrastructure out of fear it would have adverse effects on noncombatants in the region who benefit economically from the industry.

President Barack Obama has been loath to acknowledge criticisms that his strategy—with the goal of "degrading and destroying" ISIS—is ineffective. But Carter suggested that the U.S. was prepared to make changes to gather better intelligence, which he said would make airstrikes more likely to reach their targets.

"If you look at the data, the thing that most enhances the impact of the air campaign is better and better intelligence," he said.

He added, "We're prepared to change the rules of engagement. We've changed tactics, as we just did with the case of the fuel trucks." In the past month, U.S.-led airstrikes have taken out over 150 targets in oil-producing regions controlled by ISIS, including more than 100 fuel tanker trucks as well as oil and gas separation facilities.

This might qualify as escalation for the Pentagon, but the public may not believe that the war effort has been increased without the presence of large-scale ground forces. For now, the administration continues to rule out that option, though it has deployed small numbers of troops to support local fighters.

U.S. politicians, including presidential candidates from both parties, have suggested establishing a no-fly zone over Syria, but it's clear from Carter's public statements that the Pentagon is focused on taking out ISIS—which doesn't possess an air force—before jockeying for control of the region with Russia or attempting to force out Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad.