White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters today that President Obama was aware of the low training numbers when he said Monday “we’re starting to see some progress” in the fight against ISIS.
Obama, surrounded by generals at the Pentagon, said “we continue to ramp up our training and support of local forces” that are fighting ISIS — something many lawmakers said has been too pokey.
Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee today, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said he was “always going to be truthful” about the number trained, and that was 60.
“And I think we’ve stated that number before, but I said it today and I will always tell the truth. And that is a small class,” Carter said. “It results from the fact that that is the number that got through the very rigorous vetting and selection process we have.”
“General Nagata, who runs that program, believes that he has learned a lot. He has 7,000 behind that so I expect those numbers to increase,” he added. “But I wanted to tell the truth and I did tell the truth. We expect that number to improve but you deserve to know where things stand and I’m telling you where things stand.”
Asked if Obama was briefed on those number before speaking at the Pentagon, the White House spokesman said “the president is regularly updated on our anti-ISIL efforts.”
Earnest argued today that theirs is a strategy “that encompasses a large number of elements, including building up the capacity of local fighters, security forces inside of Iraq, but also building almost essentially from the ground up a trained, equipped, moderate Syrian opposition.”
“And we have long acknowledged that that would be a more challenging, difficult, longer term task, and — and that is something that is still ongoing. So the president has been regularly updated on this. And what the United States and our coalition partners are looking to do is to try to accelerate that training process,” he continued.
“And that includes more resources, that means stepping up our recruiting efforts. And that’s what the president was referring to when he made reference to the fact that we want to do more to build the capacity of opposition fighters in Syria.”
Earnest was reminded that the plan was to get to 5,400 fighters trained per year, with an estimated 18,000 needed to really fight ISIS.
“Clearly that number is not enough, and what we need to do is continue to accelerate that training and equipping program,” he replied. “What’s also undeniable is the importance of making sure that the individuals who go through that — go through that program are properly vetted. We want to make sure that individuals who go through that program don’t have a — aren’t affiliated with extremist groups, for example. We want to make sure that the right individuals are going through that training program, and setting up the program for vetting those individuals takes some time.”
“I do think that it’s common sense to conclude that once those vetting mechanisms are in place and once they demonstrate some success in choosing the right people, that that’s when you can start to accelerate them, you can fit more people through that system,” Earnest said. “But, you know, we have been mindful and pretty candid about the challenges in Syria for some time, and I think this is the latest indication of how significant those challenges actually are.”
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) pointed out that it’s not that the administration isn’t doing anything against ISIS, but that “there is no compelling reason to believe that anything we are currently doing will be sufficient to degrade and ultimately defeat ISIL.”
“ISIL is not ten feet tall. It can be, and must be, defeated. But that will never happen if we continue to delude ourselves about our current campaign,” McCain said. “I hope the president’s military commanders were more candid and critical in their assessments of our campaign with the president than his comments to the American people would indicate.”