Former Advisers to Obama: More U.S. Ground Forces Needed to Defeat Islamic State

Retired Army chief of staff: ‘You've got to attack them on several fronts and we're not doing it’

Defense Secretary Ash Carter

Defense Secretary Ash Carter testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee / AP

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Former defense officials and advisers to President Obama are urging him to consider deploying more U.S. ground forces to the Middle East, arguing that a more significant presence is required to defeat the Islamic State and rebuild trust with allies in the region.

Obama said in his address to the nation on Sunday that U.S. forces “should not be drawn once more into a long and costly ground war in Iraq or Syria.” Instead, his current strategy of airstrikes, along with the deployment of small numbers of special operations forces to conduct raids and train local forces, would “achieve a more sustainable victory,” he said.

However, Obama’s military advisers have admitted that the current strategy has not prevented the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) from launching attacks abroad and expanding to new countries. At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Wednesday, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said that he agreed with recent comments by Gen. Joe Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that the Islamic State is not “contained”—a phrase Obama used just before the terrorist attacks in Paris.

Former defense officials say more U.S. forces on the ground are needed to gather intelligence and lead an anti-Islamic State coalition. Gen. Ray Odierno, the retired former Army chief of staff, said Wednesday on MSNBC that he “wish[es] we wouldn’t put caps on” the number of troops that can be sent to the Middle East.

The United States is the “glue” that can help other local allies combat the terrorist group, he said.

“We can get them to do things to defeat ISIS,” he said. “The Kurds are only going to do so much. They’re going to do what’s good for Kurds. You need a plan that goes after Iraq, Syria, and the Kurds coming from the north and you have ISIS looking in several different directions.”

“You’ve got to attack them on several fronts and we’re not doing it,” he added. “We got to have people.”

In addition to more U.S. special operations forces, Odierno said as many as 2,000 conventional troops might be required to lead the coalition. The expanded forces would help “build trust in the Middle East” and convince Arab allies that “we’re going to do what we say.”

“The American people are afraid right now,” he said. “I think Europeans are afraid. We need to take some action to reassure them.”

After the Iranian nuclear deal, it is vital that the United States “rebuild relationships” with Sunni Muslim nations led by Saudi Arabia that are rivals with the Shiite government in Tehran, he said. Partnering with local tribal forces, as the United States did during the Iraq War, would also give Sunnis an alternative to supporting the Islamic State.

Emily Horne, spokeswoman for the National Security Council, said in an email that Obama is following the advice of his current military advisers to implement a strategy against the Islamic State.

“Secretary Carter clearly stated in his opening testimony [on Wednesday] that the actions the President is undertaking to combat ISIL in Iraq and Syria are on the advice of Secretary Carter and Chairman Dunford,” she said.

Still, former defense officials have continued to advocate for a more aggressive response to the Islamic State’s recent attacks. Mike Vickers, a former undersecretary of defense for intelligence, wrote last month that Obama should pursue a “Syria first strategy” that would target the caliphate’s stronghold with the CIA, special operations forces, and local allies—a mission that would be similar to U.S. operations in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Robert Gates, former defense secretary under Obama and George W. Bush, said earlier this year that without more U.S. ground forces, defeating the Islamic State would be an “unattainable objective.”

“It will be very difficult to roll ISIS back without forward air controllers and spotters, without embedded trainers,” on the front lines with local partners, he said.

Obama is making a straw-man argument when he says that the only choices are the current strategy or a large-scale ground invasion with hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops, Gates said.

“The notion of the alternative as being what we’re doing now, and a re-invasion of Iraq, if you will, with large ground forces, is a false set of options,” he said.

Daniel Wiser   Email | Full Bio | RSS
Daniel Wiser is an assistant editor of National Affairs. He graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in May 2013, where he studied Journalism and Political Science and was the State & National Editor for The Daily Tar Heel. He hails from Waxhaw, N.C., and currently lives in Washington, D.C. His Twitter handle is @TheWiserChoice.

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