After a brief surprise visit to the Middle East only days after taking charge, new Defense Secretary Ashton Carter says the Obama administration’s strategy for battling ISIS in Iraq and Syria is basically sound – though in need of a little tweaking.
During a meeting with reporters Monday in Kuwait City after discussions with top military and diplomatic officials, Carter spoke in broad terms about ways he thinks the strategy of U.S. airstrikes and ground operations by allied forces could be improved or refined. But he left open the possibility of much bigger changes down the road, such as a bigger commitment to ground operations.
“I think we have the ingredients of a strategy,” Carter cautiously told reporters. His manner was far unlike the remarkable and probably ill-advised briefing that some U.S. military officials gave last Thursday.
The U.S. Central Command, or CENTCOM, which oversees the military coalition fight against ISIS in Iraq, literally outlined the size and makeup a campaign to drive ISIS from Mosul in northern Iraq this spring. Both Carter and the White House were apparently caught by surprise, and Senate Armed Services Committee chair John McCain (R-AZ) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) were outraged.
“Those responsible have jeopardized our national security interests and must be held accountable,” the two lawmakers wrote.
By contrast, Carter mostly hinted at or strongly suggested things to come in his meeting with reporters in Kuwait. Some of the tweaking of strategy he apparently has in minds includes:
Pushing for more involvement by some European and Middle Eastern nations in the 60-member coalition fighting ISIS. The reality is that Jordan and the other Arab countries are still doing relatively little, though Jordan says it ramped up attacks in the wake of ISIS’s brutal killing of a Jordanian pilot by setting him on fire in a cage. As of this week, the U.S. mounted 946 strikes in Syria, while Jordan, Bahrain, Saudi and UAE completed 79 total, National Public Radio reported. The United Arab Emirates stopped flying in December, reportedly concerned that the U.S. is not providing sufficient combat air rescue.
Placing greater emphasis on the diplomatic aspects of the strategy against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Carter also said it was vital that the U.S. and its allies find ways to counter Islamic State’s use of social media in shaping the narrative of the war and recruiting from the Middle East, Europe and even the United States.
Last week, Obama announced that Rashad Hussain, the envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, would become coordinator of counterterrorism communications in an important step in countering ISIS’s sophisticated social media strategy.
“ISIL’s use of social media will be pressing us to be more creative in combatting it in the information dimension, as well as the physical dimension,” Carter said, using a different acronym for the terror group.
Finally launching the Pentagon’s “train-and-equip program.” U.S. officials expect to train more than 5,000 moderate Syrian rebels per year for the next three years after identifying, vetting and training them, Defense One reported. But it will be a challenging and difficult task, since the training will not be done in Syria but at four sites in three other countries: Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
Carter said the current plan for training and equipping moderate Syrian forces is sufficient based on American forces’ experience in conducting such training. “It’s one of the key lessons that we learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s one of the key skills we honed, and I don’t think there’s any military that does it better,” he said. “I think we have that kind of tradecraft down.”
Carter gave no hint that he would press for major changes in the president’s approach, despite urging by McCain, Graham and others to move more aggressively or seek a commitment for more ground troops in the region. “The lasting defeat of this brutal group can and will be accomplished,” Carter told the reporters.
At the same time, the new defense secretary acknowledged that the war against ISIS has become more challenging and complex, because the militant Muslim movement has spread into North Africa and Afghanistan.
Although President Obama has repeatedly ruled out the deployment of additional U.S. ground troops, he has asked Congress to grant him war powers with a fair amount of flexibility in using ground troops or Special Forces in the future to coordinate air attacks, rescue operations or to pursue ISIS troops beyond the borders of Iraq and Syria.
However, the rash of ISIS beheadings, slaughter of civilians and Christians and selective terrorist attacks in France, Denmark, Australia and elsewhere have frightened many Americans and prompted renewed support for deployment of U.S. troops in Iraq after more than a decade of U.S. military commitment in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Sixty-five percent of Americans view ISIS as a major threat – up from 58 percent in October – a recent CBS News poll said. Moreover, with concern about ISIS growing, support for the use of U.S. ground troops in the fight against ISIS has risen as well. For the first time, a majority of Americans – 57 percent -- favor sending U.S. ground troops into Iraq and Syria to fight ISIS. In October, Americans were divided, with 47 percent in favor and 46 percent opposed.
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