WASHINGTON — America’s top two military leaders on Tuesday defended President Barack Obama’s strategy to defeat Islamic State group militants amid criticism from Republican senators who argued that the administration’s program to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels is faltering.
Defence Secretary Ash Carter acknowledged publicly for the first time that the program aimed stopping the momentum of IS has slowed to the point where it has only about 60 participating fighters — a level well beneath the thousands envisioned by U.S. policymakers.
Sen. John McCain, the Armed Services Committee chairman and persistent Obama foreign policy critic, told Carter: “I got to tell you that after four years, Mr. Secretary, that is not a very impressive number.”
The Associated Press reported last month that the number of trainees involved in the program at bases in Jordan and Turkey had dropped below 100, with dozens of recruits fleeing the program.
“The number is much smaller than we hoped for at this point,” the secretary told McCain, but he maintained that the initiative remains an essential element of the U.S. military strategy in the region. He said the training has given the U.S. a window into the opposition groups inside Syria, adding that it has yielded valuable intelligence and has increased the Pentagon’s ability to attract moderate rebel recruits.
McCain, the Republican who lost to Obama in the 2008 presidential election, said there is no compelling reason to think that anything the U.S. is doing will be enough to achieve the president’s goal of degrading and ultimately destroying IS.
“Our means and our current level of effort are not aligned with our ends,” he told Carter at a Capitol Hill hearing. “That suggests we are not winning, and when you are not winning in war, you are losing.”
Iraq is going through its worst crisis since the 2011 withdrawal of U.S. troops. The Islamic State group controls large swaths of the country’s north and west after capturing Iraq’s second-largest city of Mosul and the majority of the western Anbar province last year.
McCain said Islamic State continues to gain territory in Iraq and Syria, while expanding its influence across the Middle East, Africa and Central Asia. He said there is no responsible ground force in either Iraq or Syria that can seize territory from IS, with slim prospects from the U.S.-led coalition’s current training efforts of local ground forces.
“While our coalition may own the skies, as the president said yesterday, our air campaign against IS continues to be limited significantly by overly restrictive rules of engagement and a lack of ground intelligence, which only gets worse as IS moves into urban areas to avoid coalition bombing,” McCain said.
“Pilots will tell you that they are only as good as the targets they receive,” he said, and when “three-quarters of our air missions against IS still return to base without dropping weapons, that is indicative of a fundamental problem with our air campaign.”
Carter backed the president’s policy while acknowledging that more needs to be done to strengthen the mission to train local forces.
“I’ve told Iraqi leaders that while the United States is open to supporting Iraq more than we already are, we must see a greater commitment from all parts of the Iraqi government,” Carter added.
McCain also pressed Carter on giving arms to Ukrainian forces fighting Russian-backed rebels. Carter has said that he is “inclined” to recommend giving lethal arms to the Ukrainian soldiers and reiterated that stance at the hearing. The White House has thus far refrained from sending lethal assistance to Ukrainian forces.