Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby talks to reporters, Sept. 12, 2014.

Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby talks to reporters, Sept. 12, 2014. (From DOD video)

WASHINGTON — After weeks of airstrikes that have been tactically effective but oriented toward defense, the United States military is preparing to go on offense against Islamic State militants, the Pentagon said Friday.

“I think you can expect we are going to be more aggressive going forward,” Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby told reporters Friday.

About 160 airstrikes over the last month have limited insurgents’ ability to operate freely in Iraq, and have allowed Iraqi and Kurdish forces to retake key infrastructure and defend threatened populations, he said. The airstrikes began after insurgents sent Iraqi army divisions scurrying as they swept across northern Iraq and approached Irbil, a city in the Kurdistan region where U.S. troops are working in a joint operations center with local forces.

But now the U.S. military is prepared to greatly expand its operations to carry out a policy aimed at destruction of the group, as announced Wednesday by President Barack Obama in a nationally televised speech.

“Our role is to degrade their capabilities, which we are continuing to do, to support indigenous forces in Iraq and hopefully in Syria, to take the fight to them,” Kirby said.

Critics have called out Obama for ruling out U.S. combat ground troops in the struggle against insurgents, but Kirby said that limitation hasn’t been a problem so far.

“We know we’re having a tactical effect on ISIL, and we’ve been able to do that without quote-unquote boots on the ground,” he said.

For operations in Syria, the administration is asking Congress to approve $500 million to help create a ground force of ideologically moderate rebels to fight Islamic State militants and oppose the government of Syrian president Bashar Assad.

But, reporters asked Kirby on Friday, if the United States was unable to train an Iraqi military capable of standing against the militants after spending billions of dollars over a number of years, how can it expect to create a viable rebel force?

“Nobody has said this is going to solve all the problems inside Syria or that it alone is going to result in the complete destruction of ISIL inside Syria,” he said. “What we have said is, you gotta start somewhere, and you have to have willing and capable partners on the ground.”

The key to defeating Islamic State militants isn’t the military, including airstrikes, he said. Military force alone is not a “panacea,” Kirby said, because it can’t destroy the group’s radical ideology.

“It cannot be done simply militarily,” he said. “This is not an army, this is a terrorist group.”

Overcoming ISIL in Iraq will require help from regional partners as well as a “responsive political process” in Iraq, he said — one able to reduce the attraction of the Islamic State to Sunnis alienated by the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad.

After the previous collapse of Iraqi units in the face of insurgent fighters, the army has rallied, Kirby said.

“They have been doing well — not perfectly — but they’ve been doing well,” Kirby said, holding Baghdad and retaking some land to the north, as well as retaking the Mosul dam with Kurdish forces.

The United States is at war with the Islamic State much as it is with al-Qaida affiliates worldwide, but it is not going to grow to the magnitude of recent wars, Kirby said.

“This not going to be the Iraq war,” he said. “This is a counterterrorism campaign against ISIL for which there is a military component to which we will contribute.” Twitter: @ChrisCarroll_

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now