FPI Bulletin: Questions for Secretary Carter and General Dunford

December 1, 2015

This morning, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and General Joseph Dunford, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will testify before the House Armed Services Committee on the subject of U.S. strategy for Syria and Iraq. The hearing comes at a time of intense debate about the adequacy of the U.S. military response to the threat posed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS, ISIL or Daesh). FPI believes the following questions will be useful for lawmakers and their staff in their dialogue with Secretary Carter and General Dunford.


The Growing Threat from ISIS

Shortly before the Paris attacks, President Obama told ABC News that ISIS has “not gained ground in Iraq” nor have they established control of additional territory in Syria. Yet in May, ISIS captured the strategic city of Ramadi in Western Iraq. That same month, it also captured the Syrian city of Palmyra. According to an independent analysis by the Institute for the Study of War, the ISIS zone of control in Syria is expanding southwest from Palmyra towards the capital of Damascus, despite the gains made by Kurdish forces in the north.

  • Secretary Carter and General Dunford, with Ramadi now under ISIS control, is it plausible to say that ISIS has not gained ground in Iraq this year? Have Iraqi security forces reclaimed any significant cities or towns from ISIS this year?
  • Secretary Carter and General Dunford, has the occupation of Palmyra enabled ISIS to extend its reach toward Damascus?

Shortly before the Paris attacks, President Obama said of ISIS, “we have contained them.” Presidential adviser Ben Rhodes defended this statement on the grounds that “the president was responding very specifically to the geographic expansion of ISIL in Iraq and Syria.”

  • Secretary Carter, from a global perspective, is there any ground for describing ISIS as “contained”? In light of recent attacks in Paris, Ankara, Beirut and Sinai, isn’t it clear that ISIS is expanding its operational reach?
  • President Obama insists, “We have the right strategy, and we’re going to see it through.” given that ISIS continues to expand despite sixteen months of U.S.-led military operations designed to stop it, isn’t it already time for a new strategy? At what point would you conclude that it’s time for a new strategy, if you have not already?

French President François Hollande said the Paris attacks were “organized, and planned from outside, with help from inside.” CIA Director John Brennan said, “I certainly would not consider [Paris] a one-off event.”  He added, “It’s clear to me that ISIL has an external agenda, that they are determined to carry out these types of attacks. I would anticipate that this is not the only operation that ISIL has in the pipeline.”

  • Do you agree that Islamic State personnel in Iraq and Syria played a key role in facilitating the attacks on Paris?
  • Do you agree with Director Brennan that Paris was not “a one-off event” and that the Islamic State will seek to conduct additional attacks on Western targets?
  • Do you believe that the possession of sanctuaries in Iraq and Syria enhances the ability of the Islamic State to carry out lethal attacks on Western targets?
  • Is it therefore necessary to destroy those sanctuaries as soon as possible?

In addition to launching terrorist attacks on Paris, Ankara, Beirut, and Sinai, ISIS continues to expand throughout the region.

  • Do you agree that the Islamic State in Afghanistan (Wilayat Khorasan) also expanded its range of control this year, especially in the province of Nangarhar?
  • On Sunday, the New York Times reported that the Libyan city of Surt has been transformed from a minor outpost to an “actively managed colony of the central Islamic State, crowded with foreign fighters from around the region.” Do you concur that the Islamic State has strengthened its control of Surt and the surrounding region?
  • The Islamic State in Sinai (Wilayat Sinai) has claimed responsibility for placing the bomb that brought down Metrojet Flight 9268, killing all 224 passengers aboard. Does the evidence currently available indicate that IS in Sinai placed that bomb on the plane?

Improving a Deficient Strategy

There is growing concern about the ineffectiveness of U.S. airstrikes targeting ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said, “I think that the resources applied to that mission, frankly, have not been sufficient,” observed Panetta, “We need to increase the tempo of our air strikes.” Dr. Michael G. Vickers, the Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence, writes, “We conducted as many airstrikes in two months in Afghanistan in 2001 as we have in 16 months in Iraq and Syria.” Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has also called for “a more effective coalition air campaign, with more allies’ planes, more strikes, and a broader target set.”

  • Gen. Dunford, do you have sufficient aircraft and munitions available to increase the rate of airstrikes against ISIS? If not, why not?
  • In June, military officials acknowledged that 75 percent of planes flying combat missions return to base without dropping any weapons. Is that also true for combat missions since June? How can you improve on that performance?
  • Would the availability of Special Operations Forces to serve as forward air controllers enable you to identify and strike more targets?
  • Are narrow rules of engagement or restrictions on your target set preventing American forces from inflicting substantial damage on ISIS?

There is also concern about the shortcomings of the current effort to train Iraqi forces. Michèle Flournoy, President Obama’s first Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, said the U.S. should bring its “training and advising down to the battalion level rather than just at the division level.” The Army’s former Vice Chief of Staff, General Jack Keane, (ret.), said, “Adviser teams must be with the units that are fighting,” which means at battalion level and below.

  • Gen. Dunford, in your best military judgment, would placing advisers at the battalion level help to accelerate the rebuilding of Iraqi forces?
  • How many additional advisers would this expanded mission require? How long would the Army need to deploy those additional advisers?

There is growing bipartisan support for a no-fly zone over Syria as well as humanitarian corridors on the ground. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, “I personally would be advocating now for a no-fly zone and humanitarian corridors to try to stop the carnage on the ground and from the air.” Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also endorsed this proposal, in an article she co-authored with Secretary of Defense Bob Gates. Yet according to the New York Times, the Pentagon presented the National Security Council with “sobering estimates of the extensive military resources required to enforce such zones.”

  • Secretary Carter, in a classified setting, will your department share those estimates with this committee, along with any supporting information necessary to determine their basis?
  • Anne Patterson, the Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, recently testified that a no-fly zone would require “a massive, massive amount of air support that would then detract from the effort against ISIL.” Gen. Dunford, is this correct? Do you lack sufficient resources to execute both missions? If so, why don’t you have what you need?
  • An independent assessment by the Institute for the Study of War identified a range of relatively low-cost options for implementing a no-fly zone. Gen. Dunford, has the Pentagon analyzed those options or ones that are similar? If not, will you revisit the issue in order to determine those options’ viability?

After the failure of its initial effort to train and equip a moderate opposition force in Syria, the Department of Defense has begun to emphasize its support for what it calls the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). However, on the basis of numerous interviews conducted across northern Syria, the New York Times concluded that the SDF “exists in name only.”

  • According to the Times, “nearly all of the group’s fighting power comes from ethnic Kurdish militias.” In contrast, a senior administration official told the Times that the Syrian Arab Coalition, the SDF’s Arab component, was “an American invention.” What did he mean by that? Do the members of the Syrian Arab Coalition have any experience working together as a group?
  • The SDF is supposed to be commanded by a six-person military council. The Times reported that five of those positions remained vacant as of early last month. What is their current status?

In October, President Obama sent a force of fewer than 50 Special Operators to Syria “to offer [the opposition] advice and assistance on the ground as they take the fight to ISIL,” as his spokesman explained.

  • How can fewer than 50 troops make a meaningful difference when the opposition has tens of thousands of fighters?
  • Can you point to any indications those 50 troops have made a difference already?
  • Would sending additional troops have a greater impact? Given the urgency of defeating ISIS, will you recommend to the President that he send additional troops?

Russian and Iranian Intervention

Secretary Carter, you have been relentlessly critical of the Russian intervention in Syria. You’ve said that Vladimir Putin is just “fueling the very civil war that leads to extremism” and that he has “a strategy that is doomed to fail.”

  • Russian forces have repeatedly targeted Syrian opposition forces that receive CIA assistance. Is the U.S. military taking any action to deter or prevent such attacks?
  • To what extent are Russian forces taking any precautions to prevent civilian casualties? Is the Pentagon tracking the extent to which Russian air strikes target civilians, either intentionally or inadvertently?
  • Is the deployment of Russian forces sustainable? Do you foresee any logistical constraints on the deployment continuing for at least a year? Does Russia have the financial resources to sustain its deployment?

The Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei, consistently says that the U.S. created ISIS as a means of sowing discord among Muslims. According to Khamenei, “Today, the Americans themselves are acknowledging this. They are acknowledging that it was they who created Daesh, al-Nusra Front and other takfiri groups.”

  • Do you have any reason to doubt the sincerity of Ayatollah Khamenei’s repeated proclamations?
  • Is any sort of U.S.-Iranian cooperation against ISIS possible if the Supreme Leader believes that ISIS is an American creation?

In October, the Associated Press reported that Iran had deployed hundreds of troops to fight in Syria, despite Tehran’s long-standing insistence that it would only send trainers and advisers. In addition, several senior Iranian officers have been killed in Syria.

  • How many Iranian combat troops are currently in Syria? How many advisers? How many Hezbollah fighters are currently in Syria? Is it true that Hezbollah sent a new wave of reinforcements in October?
  • Secretary Carter, if Russian support for Assad is, in your words, “fueling the very civil war that leads to extremism”, would you also agree that Iranian support for Assad is fueling the same civil war and the same extremism?
  • Would you concur that Iranian support for Syria has only intensified since the conclusion of its nuclear deal with the P5+1?

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