President Obama’s strategy against the Islamic State terror group came under harsh criticism from senators on Tuesday who said the United States is losing the war by not doing more to attack the group.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) said the president was guilty of "self-delusion" in claiming progress is being made against the ultra-violent al Qaeda offshoot, also known as ISIL or ISIS.
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During a committee hearing with Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, McCain said 5,000 allied air strikes on IS targets have so far done little to stop IS advances.
"Since U.S. and coalition airstrikes began last year, ISIL has continued to enjoy battlefield successes, including taking Ramadi and other key terrain in Iraq, holding over half the territory in Syria and controlling every border post between Iraq and Syria," McCain said.
"Our means and our current level of effort are not aligned with our ends," he said. "That suggests we are not winning, and when you're not winning in war, you are losing."
Dempsey, the Joint Chiefs chairman, said restoring Iraqi sovereignty over IS-held territory in Iraq will take at least three years, and defeating the terror group could take up to 20 years.
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R., Ala.) also said the president’s strategy against IS is failing.
"And I am deeply disappointed," Sessions told Carter. "I don't see the confidence in your testimony or Gen. Dempsey's testimony. I believe we're actively carrying out a strategy that the president has, and I don't believe it has sufficient respect for the use of military force necessary to be successful."
Additionally, Republican senators criticized the Pentagon leaders for adopting a counter-IS strategy that excludes a concerted military effort to oust Syria’s Bashir Assad from power.
McCain said the failure to deal with the Syrian civil war, where Iran, pro-Iran Hezbollah forces, and Russia are supporting Assad, is the greatest accelerant for Islamic State gains in both gaining recruits and on the battlefield.
"None of our efforts against ISIL in Iraq can succeed while the conflict in Syria continues, and with it, the conditions for ISIL’s continued growth, recruitment, and radicalization of Muslims around the world," McCain said.
A U.S.-backed program to train Syrian rebels has been restricted to training fighters solely to battle IS militants and not the Assad regime. Fewer than 100 fighters have been trained so far, the Senate testimony disclosed.
The administration launched a Syrian rebel training program just three months ago that plans to produce a force of 7,000 volunteer anti-IS rebels.
"As of July 3rd, we are currently training about 60 fighters," Carter, the defense secretary, said. "This number is much smaller than we'd hoped for at this point."
The Pentagon currently has some 3,500 troops involved in training Iraqi forces and has conducted over 5,000 airstrikes on IS targets in Iraq and Syria.
McCain, however, said a large number of the aircraft sorties returned to their bases without dropping bombs because of a lack of ground spotters.
Dempsey testified that IS terrorism is one of several global threats that include Russian revanchism in Eastern Europe, Chinese aggression in the South China Sea, Iranian terrorist activities in the Middle East, and new technical advancements by North Korea, as well as a growing cyber threat.
"While our potential adversaries grow stronger, many of our allies are becoming increasingly dependent on the United States and on our assistance, and some of our comparative military advantages have begun to erode," Dempsey said.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R., Ark.) said the Islamic State is expanding its operations to Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.
"There have been a series of spectacular terrorist attacks in the Sinai peninsula," he said. "The Islamic State takes credit for those attacks. We still have the multinational force and observers in the Sinai peninsula, almost 1,800 soldiers, 1,200 of which are American personnel."
Dempsey said the Joint Staff conducted a vulnerability assessment of the Sinai and added some new weapons and communications to U.S. and Egyptian forces there.
"I'm confident that [American forces] are adequately protected today, but I fully expect that threat to increase," Dempsey said.
Dempsey, under questioning from Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) agreed that currently more terrorist organizations are operating in more safe havens, and with more weapons and people capable of striking U.S. homeland than at any time since the Sept. 11 attacks.
The four-star general also said IS is expanding to other countries outside Syria and Iraq.
Graham said IS is "recruiting more foreign fighters than we're training [for the] Free Syrian Army."
"The math doesn't work. This is never going to result in Assad or ISIL being degraded or destroyed. The only way I see ISIL to be degraded or destroyed is for a ground force, regional in nature, to go into Syria," Graham said.
The defense secretary said the U.S. objective in Syria is to force Assad to step down through political and not military means.
Carter and Dempsey said in their testimony that the U.S. ground forces in the region are limited to being used as trainers for Iraqi forces.
Four divisions of U.S.-trained Iraqi military forces deserted during the IS incursion from Syria into Iraq last year, providing both military equipment and a propaganda edge for the group.
"The lack of coherent strategy has resulted in the spread of ISIL around the world to Libya, Egypt, Nigeria, and even to Afghanistan," McCain said.
"We have seen this movie before, and if we make the same mistakes, we should expect similarly tragic results," he said. "I do not want to attend another hearing like this with your successors, trying to figure out a strategy to clean up after avoidable mistakes."
Under questioning from Sen. Mike Lee (R., Utah) Carter said IS exercises "mixed" command and control over affiliate terror groups and individual jihadists in the Middle East and North Africa, and in Europe and the Western Hemisphere.
"ISIL is more resilient because it is more decentralized and informal in that sense," Carter said.
Carter and Dempsey met Monday with Obama at the Pentagon to discuss the administration’s counter-IS strategy that includes nine "lines of effort."
They include military, diplomatic, and intelligence programs, along with sanctions and efforts to counter IS propaganda and recruitment.
Duane "Dewey" Clarridge, a former senior CIA counterterrorism leader, said in an interview that the administration’s Syrian training program is a waste of time.
Clarridge said the Pentagon should fund and organize a regional military force of Egyptians, Saudis, Jordanians, and Persian Gulf militaries based on the Sunni Arab National Front for the Salvation of Iraq, also known as the Awakening Movement, that was developed in Iraq from 2008 to bring stability to the country.
"Then you’d have a real force that could whack ISIS to the ground," he said.
Additionally, Clarridge said the Pentagon needs to stop sending all arms and aid through Baghdad and should follow Germany’s lead in sending weaponry directly to Kurdish fighters in northern Iraq.
Clarridge also said that the Obama administration is doing nothing to counter IS propaganda and recruitment efforts, he said.
"Everyone says you can’t win this war militarily. But where is the psychological warfare effort? I have people monitoring this day in, day out, and there is none, zero," Clarridge said, adding that the current efforts is limited to a few people at Fort Bragg, N.C.
"There are people standing by with large capabilities, Muslims, ready to put their capabilities to work, if someone would organize it," Clarridge said.
Additionally, no radio broadcasting is being carried out in Iraq and Syria, he said.
Carter said the key Iraqi city of Ramadi that was overrun by IS forces on May 17 needs to be retaken but not until Iraqi forces are better prepared for the counter offensive.
"This will be a test of the competence of the Iraqi security forces, and it's a test that they must pass," Carter said. "Our and the coalition's involvement is to try to train and equip and support them to be successful."
Dempsey said a counter attack against Ramadi was called off about a month ago because Iraqi troops were not ready.
According to a detailed situation report from Iraq by the contractor Falcon Group, coalition forces conducted 11 airstrikes on July 6, near Sinjar, the Makhmour district, Kirkuk province, Baiji, Haditha, Ramadi, and Fallujah. The strikes hit an IS tactical unit and destroyed a heavy machine gun and a building.
Reports from the region indicated that IS forces near Baiji, where a major oil refinery is located, carried out a major counter offensive against Iraqi forces, the Falcon Group said.
"IS elements also attacked in the oil refinery and now control 60 percent of the refinery," the report said.
The Iraqi government denied the reports and said most of the refinery remains under Iraqi security forces’ control.