U.S. airstrikes have ISIS on the ropes, the top U.S. general in the Middle East told a House committee last week, but legislators remain concerned that President Obama’s battle plan could lead to American combat forces in Iraq.
Gen. Lloyd Austin told the House Armed Services Committee that eight months of U.S.-led airstrikes have killed more than 8,500 ISIS fighters and destroyed hundreds of the terror group’s tanks, heavy artillery platforms and other vehicles.
“We are making significant progress against ISIL,” Austin said, using the alternative acronym for the group that has sowed terror throughout the Middle East in its campaign to set up an Islamic caliphate. ISIL stands for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, while ISIS refers to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
“The [group] is in a defensive crouch in Iraq now,” Austin continued. “And although he has more freedom of movement in Syria, he’s largely on the defensive there as well. Make no mistake — ISIL is losing this fight. This barbaric organization must be defeated, and I am certain he will be defeated.”
Austin added that he’s confident the campaign against the terrorist organization will bring ISIS down without the need for U.S. combat forces. Obama has already authorized the return of 3,100 personnel to Iraq, but only in an advisory role. He has made an official request to Congress to expand the use of military force in Iraq.
Despite Austin’s assurances, though, several committee members fear that Obama’s request will lead to the deployment of ground combat forces. They also fear that Iraq won’t be able to maintain security or keep other terrorist groups at bay once ISIS is defeated and the U.S. leaves.
ISIS has seized several significant swaths of Iraq over the past two years, and has made inroads into Syria as well. Along the way, the group has butchered thousands of Iraqi men, women and children, along with troops from Syria, Iraq and Jordan. ISIS also has kidnapped and beheaded several Western journalists and aid workers.
Videos of the beheadings, along with those showing the immolation of a Jordanian pilot and the mass execution of soldiers from other nations, have been released by the group. This means of execution, along with the stark video footage, have been used by ISIS to terrorize and intimidate both civilians and Iraqi and foreign fighters. The group also has posted on the Internet several slickly produced “marketing” videos to lure like-minded Muslims from the Middle East, Europe, and the U.S. to Syria and Iraq to join its jihad. Thousands of men and women have done just that, including hundreds from the United States.
An ‘Ambiguous’ Request
The president’s request, formally known as an AUMF, or authorization to use military force, asks Congress to approve “necessary and appropriate” action against ISIS. It would limit American involvement to an initial three years, and prohibit the use of “enduring offensive ground combat.”
It’s that last part that has many lawmakers — Democrats and Republicans alike — uneasy, especially the word “enduring.”
As committee chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) noted, the term is “ambiguous, at best.”
Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) said the plan’s reliance on the Iraqi government does not instill him with a lot of confidence. Under the current proposal, Iraq would take the lead in the fight against ISIS. U.S. advisers and a limited number of support personnel would train, equip and advise Iraqi forces until ISIS is stamped out. It would then be up to the Iraqis to take full control of security.
That sounds an awful lot like the plan the U.S. implemented following the Iraq war, O’Rourke said. Once the U.S. left the country at the end of 2011, he noted, competing factions within Iraq began to jockey for control of the country. That, in turn, led to a weak and chaotic government, and opened the door for ISIS to take root in Iraq.
“I haven’t heard anything about how this is going to be different from last time,” O’Rourke said in an exchange with Defense Undersecretary Christine Womuth, the hearing’s only other witness. “Can you assure us that what the administration is asking for will be sufficient or will you come back to us at some point, and ask for a [larger role] for U.S. ground troops?”
Womuth said the difference this time is that the Iraqi government wants the U.S. there, and has asked specifically for its help. Four years ago, she said, the Iraqis were eager for the U.S. to leave.
“We have much more of a partner in the Iraqi government,” she said. “Prime Minister [Haider] al-Abadi wants us and wants the broader coalition there to help him.”
She also reiterated Austin’s position that a large contingent of ground forces won’t be necessary.
“The current AUMF does not envision the deployment of a large ground-troop format,” Womuth said.
O’Rourke, though, wasn’t convinced. Between the Syrian civil war, the fall of the Yemeni government to Iranian-backed rebels and the continued threat of a nuclear-armed Iran, the region is much more unstable than it was five years ago.
“I don’t know that I’ve heard from the administration some larger strategy about how we’re approaching the problems there outside of the military solution to the immediate threat of ISIS,” O’Rourke said.
Language Too Restrictive?
Thornberry agreed. The growing number of hot spots in the Middle East, the committee chairman said, “have created serious stress on our strategic position” and the alliances the U.S. has brokered to protect its interests there.
“Any notion that the U.S. could pivot away from the Middle East has proven to be naïve at best,” Thornberry said, a not-so-veiled dig at Obama and his reluctance to get involved in the region’s various conflicts. Republicans also have mocked the president for insisting that the withdrawal of troops from Iraq was among his first term’s major successes. Obama has since backed off that stance and no longer touts the U.S.’s exit from Iraq as a key success of his administration.
“Part of the problem is the absence of a comprehensive strategy across the Middle East,” Thornberry continued. “The limited approach the president has taken has left instability and weak or failed states from Libya to Yemen.
That approach, he added, has made the region a “breeding ground for terrorists.”
But Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the committee’s ranking Democrat, defended Obama’s response to the region’s crises.
“Getting back to stability in that region is an enormous challenge that I think defies a comprehensive strategy,” Smith said. “It’s a mistake to assume that it’s the United States’ responsibility, or that we have the ability ourselves to solve this issue.”
While most committee members said the language regarding ground troops should be more clearly defined, some said the wording is, in fact, too narrowly defined already.
Rep. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), a retired Air Force colonel who flew missions over Iraq and Afghanistan, said the military should not be hamstrung “by some arbitrary limits” on ground troops. As an example, she noted that ground forces often must be deployed quickly and with little notice when pilots have been shot down and left stranded in enemy territory.
“Are you limited at all from the arbitrary boots-on-the-ground cap by this administration?” McSally asked Austin. “Because I am deeply concerned we don’t have the search-and-rescue capability [that’s needed.]”
Austin said he is confident U.S. forces could quickly rescue any pilot shot down over enemy-held territory.
“Let me assure you, congresswoman,” he said, “I won’t put one pilot in the air if I don’t feel I have adequate means to recover that pilot.”