FPI Suggested Questions for SASC Hearing on the Fight Against ISIS

April 28, 2016

Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford, will testify this Thursday before the Senate Armed Services Committee on the U.S.-led campaign against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh).  Earlier this week, President Obama announced plans to deploy as many as 250 more U.S. military personnel to Syria to help train, advise, and assist members of the moderate armed opposition.

The Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI) is closely monitoring the campaign against ISIS, and believes the following questions will be useful for lawmakers and their staffs as they prepare for his important hearing.


Clarifying U.S. Objectives in the War against ISIS

Two years ago, President Obama established the objective of degrading and destroying ISIS. Secretary Carter, you have testified that the cities of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria are the Islamic State’s “center of gravity” and describe them as the “parent tumor” for other ISIS branches.

  • General Dunford, if Mosul and Raqqa represent the organization’s center of gravity, is the expulsion of ISIS from those cities an absolute requirement for destroying ISIS?
  • Since ISIS has established a new stronghold in Libya, is it possible that its expulsion from Mosul and Raqqa would not be sufficient to destroy the organization?
  • Are there other conditions that must be met before you consider the Islamic State to have been destroyed?
  • If ISIS were expelled from every one of its strongholds but continued to launch attacks like the ones in Brussels and Paris, would it be fair to say that we have not met the President’s objective?

Secretary Carter, you said that President Obama wants to defeat the Islamic State by the end of this year. You told journalists, “That’s what he said he wants. That’s what he told me and [General Dunford]. He said, ‘Get this done as soon as possible. I'd like to not leave this to my successor.’” You added, “I’m confident that we’ll do it. We have an operational plan now.”

  • General Dunford, when President Obama says he wants to defeat the Islamic State by the end of the year, does that entail their expulsion from Mosul and Raqqa? From Libya?
  • Does defeating ISIS by the end of the year mean they would no longer be able to launch attacks like the ones in Paris and Brussels?
  • Are both of you confident that we will achieve those goals by the end of this year?

According to an official Defense Department map, ISIS had lost, as of February, 25-30 percent of the populated areas it controlled in Syria and Iraq.  However, the map does not indicate what percentage of the subject population lives in the liberated areas. In addition, ISIS continues to launch devastating suicide attacks in places such as Baghdad, which the map identifies as free of ISIS control.  

  • Secretary Carter, General Dunford, can you tell this committee what percentage of the population once controlled by ISIS lives in the areas that have been liberated?
  • Is it accurate to say that the Islamic State still controls small but densely populated strips of land in the strategic Euphrates and Tigris river valleys, whereas most of the territory liberated so far consists of relatively open spaces in the Kurdish regions of Syria and Iraq?
  • If ISIS maintains the ability to launch waves of suicide attacks in regions it does not “control”, is control of territory a relevant metric for gauging the success of the campaign to destroy ISIS?

The Role of American Forces

Secretary Carter, you’ve announced that “We are going to place additional advisers with the Iraqi Security Forces, now down to brigade and battalion headquarters.” This is a long overdue step for which there has been robust bipartisan support since last summer.

  • General Dunford, will there be an increase in the total number of American advisers working with Iraqi forces, or will advisers simply migrate down to brigade and battalion headquarters?
  • How many Iraqi brigades and battalions will now have American advisers? What percentage of brigades and battalions does that comprise?
  • How many additional advisers would be necessary to enable their placement with every Iraqi brigade and battalion?

With the addition of 217 troops, the official number of American military personnel in Iraq has risen to 4,087. However, the actual number is significantly higher, a point conceded even by one Pentagon spokesman. Explanations for these divergent figures include overlapping rotations and temporary assignments. Regardless, the credibility of the government suffers when the ground truth doesn’t match up with official statements.

  • Secretary Carter, General Dunford, as the Department’s senior leaders, could you please provide an authoritative explanation of the divergence between the official number of troops in Iraq and the actual number?
  • At any given moment, do you have accurate information regarding the number of troops in Iraq?
  • If yes, is there any reason the President cannot adjust the limit to reflect the facts on the ground?

On Monday, President Obama announced the deployment of up to 250 additional American troops to Syria, where they would train and assist local forces in the fight against ISIS. The Wall Street Journal reported Sunday, “A major focus of the additional American personnel will be trying to get more Sunni Arabs to join the fight alongside Kurdish units in northeastern Syria.”

  • Secretary Carter, how can such a small number of troops be effective in organizing Syrian opposition forces if training Iraqi forces requires a substantially larger contingent?
  • How many of these 250 troops will actually be advisers, as opposed to serving in support and sustainment roles for other U.S. personnel?

Unnamed Pentagon officials told the Military Times that U.S. troops in Syria will enter into “transactional” relationships with local militias: those groups that demonstrate success against ISIS will be rewarded with U.S. support, including airstrikes, weapons, ammunition and money.

  • Secretary Carter, in order to receive American support, will the militia have to commit to fighting exclusively against the Islamic State, rather than the Assad regime?
  • Alternately, will the U.S. provide support for any mission targeting the Islamic State, even if the militia conducting that mission sometimes fights against Assad’s forces as well?
  • General Dunford, would you agree that Assad’s forces present the greatest threat to most moderate opposition forces in Syria? Do you expect those groups to shift their focus to the Islamic State?

According to the Pentagon, the number of air strikes against ISIL fell to an eight-month low in February. General Dunford, in March you said, “Target development is getting much better.  And to be honest with you, we relearned some lessons about target development.”

  • General Dunford, how do you explain the correlation between improved target development and the decline in total number of airstrikes?

The Effectiveness of Syrian and Iraqi Forces

In Syria, the U.S. has been working closely with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which the Wall Street Journal describes as “a patchwork group of about 30,000 fighters comprised of Arab, Kurdish, Assyrian and Turkmen forces.” The Syrian Arab Coalition (SAC) is a force within the SDF that consist of about 5,000 fighters, half of whom are Sunni Arabs. Last November, the New York Times reported that the SDF “exists in name only.” Rather, it is a Kurdish forces to whom poorly-trained Arab forces have been attached at the behest of the United States.

  • General Dunford, to the best of your knowledge, how many fighters are currently part of the SDF? How many are Kurdish? Do Kurdish leaders exert the greatest influence within the SDF?
  • How many fighters are part of the Syrian Arab Coalition? How many are Sunni Arabs? Does the Coalition have a clear leadership that exercises command and control, or is it better characterized as a loose collection of various militias?
  • Does the SDF exist “in name only?”

Drawing on Pentagon sources, the Daily Beast reported in December that Baghdad’s elite Counterterrorism Service (CTS) led the effort to liberate Ramadi, even though the Pentagon mainly praised regular Iraqi army forces for their success. This is a problem, since the CTS “is not large enough to do the job of liberating—and holding—multiple cities simultaneously.” Thus, the Iraqi army may have to lead the effort to retake Mosul.

  • Secretary Carter, General Dunford, how many ISF brigades are now capable of leading offensive operations to clear urban terrain held by ISIS?
  • How many ISF brigades will be necessary to retake Mosul, which is roughly four times the size of Ramadi?
  • Will the ISF need to rely heavily on American airstrikes to retake urban terrain held by ISIS?
  • Do you believe that the American artillery and attack helicopters scheduled for deployment to Iraq will reduce the risk of devastating urban terrain via airstrikes?

Earlier this month, Josh Rogin of Bloomberg View reported that the administration was divided on the question of whether Kurdish peshmerga or Sunni Arabs forces deserved the bulk of American support. 

  • Secretary Carter, General Dunford, do you believe that Kurdish forces in Iraq and Syria are willing and capable of venturing beyond Kuridsh-populated territory in order to retake Arab population centers from ISIS?
  • Do you believe that the presence of Kurdish forces in areas populated mainly by Sunni Arabs may provoke sectarian violence and the reversion of Sunni loyalties to ISIS?
  • Do you share the Turkish government’s concerns that continuing gains by Kurdish forces may result in the creation of a de facto Kurdish state?
  • Do you share Ankara’s concerns that American support for the YPG will benefit the PKK, a foreign terrorist organization with whom the YPG has a very close relationship?

The Political Situation in Iraq

Iraqi politics have reached a state of nearly total paralysis. Patrick Martin of the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) assesses that the emerging crisis in Baghad “could dramatically undermine [Iraqi] stability and pose a threat to the U.S. campaign against ISIS.” The government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi may fall and be replaced by one friendlier to Iran. There is also the prospect of mass protests and violence.

  • Secretary Carter, General Dunford, how long would the campaign to retake Mosul be delayed by a full-blown crisis in Baghdad? Would Iraqi forces have to shift their attention to stabilizing the capital?
  • What is the likelihood of the scenario envisioned by Mr. Martin in which “security in Baghdad could rapidly collapse amid street demonstrations, inter-militia violence, clashing of various actors with the security forces, and a wave of ISIS spectacular attacks aimed at exacerbating the crisis?”
  • What steps is the United States to stabilize Abadi government?

The Future of Syria

General Dunford, you recently said, “With regard to how effective the Russians have been in Syria, I mean, I will tell you that I think – I mean, I’ll just be honest.  I think the Syrian regime was reeling last July or August.  And it’s stabilized right now.” Several months ago, however, President Obama warned that intervention in Syria would become a Russian “quagmire”.

  • General Dunford, why was the Russian intervention so much more successful than the White House expected?
  • When the intervention began, how did the Pentagon assess its likelihood of success? Did it conclude at any point that the intervention would be likely to result in a quagmire?
  • Has the success of Russian intervention diminished the likelihood that Bashar al-Assad will agree to a transition that ends his rule?

Escalating violence in Syria has demonstrated the failure of the recently negotiated “cessation of hostilities”. Before this partial truce went into effect, Secretary of State John Kerry testified, “We’re going to know in a month or two whether or not this transition process is really serious.” He added, “Assad himself is going to have to make some decisions and to show that they’re serious. If there isn’t, there are certainly Plan B options that will have to be considered.”

  • Secretary Carter, General Dunford, now that two months have passed, have you concluded that neither Damascus nor Moscow is “serious” about negotiating a transition?
  • What are the “Plan B” options that must now be considered? Secretary Kerry said, “This could get a lot uglier.” How and for whom?
  • Would possible “Plan B” options include training and equipment for Syrian opposition forces fighting against the Assad regime, regardless of whether they are fighting the Islamic State?
  • Are you considering the provision of shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles to the opposition, either directly or by a third party? From a technical perspective, is it possible to modify such weapons (also known as MANPADS) to render them useless if they fall into terrorist hands?

ISIS in Europe

President Obama warned, “As ISIL is squeezed in Syria and Iraq, we can anticipate it lashing out elsewhere, as we’ve seen most recently and tragically in countries from Turkey to Brussels.”

  • Secretary Carter, General Dunford, do you expect that progress in the military campaign against ISIS will result in additional attacks in Europe?
  • Since the U.S. is the clear leader of the campaign against the Islamic State, might further progress result in terrorist attacks in the United States?

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told reporters this week that ISIS is operating terrorist cells in Western Europe similar to the ones responsible for the Paris and Brussels attacks. Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the leader of the Paris attacks, reportedly said that he had brought 90 fighters back with him from Syria to fight in Europe.  After Brussels, the Associated Press reported that ISIS has trained “at least 400 fighters to target Europe in deadly waves of attacks, deploying interlocking terror cells like the ones that struck Brussels and Paris with orders to choose the time, place and method for maximum chaos.”

  • Secretary Carter, General Dunford, can you provide a rough estimate of the size and disposition of suspected ISIS cells in Europe? 
  • To the best of your knowledge, has ISIS’ presence increased or decreased in Europe over the past year?  By how much?

One week before the Brussels attacks, a Belgian counterterrorism official confessed, “We just don’t have the people to watch anything else and, frankly, we don’t have the infrastructure to properly investigate or monitor hundreds of individuals suspected of terror links, as well as pursue the hundreds of open files and investigations we have.”  French officials echoed their complaint, telling the New York Times that after Brussels that “more strikes are possible,” and that “security and intelligence officials cannot track all the Europeans traveling to and from Islamic State strongholds in Syria and Iraq.”

  • Secretary Carter, General Dunford, do you expect our NATO allies’ counterterrorist capabilities to grow significantly in the near future?
  • If they do not grow, will the Islamic State’s presence in Europe enable it to exploit visa-free travel to launch attacks in the United States?

The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) assessed after the Brussels attacks that ISIS “aims to destabilize Europe more broadly through spectacular attacks. ISIS seeks to exacerbate tensions between European states, raise defensive requirements within those states, cause an environment of fear, and inflict additional economic damage on Europe.”

  • Secretary Carter, General Dunford, would you agree with ISW’s analysis that these are ISIS’ objectives in Europe?
  • What do you believe ISIS will do in the future to further their “long-standing strategy to punish, destabilize, and polarize the West?”

The Islamic State in Libya

The Islamic State has established control of a 150 mile-wide enclave on the Libyan coast while assembling a force of as many as 6,500 fighters. General Dunford, you told reporters in January, “we’re looking to take decisive military action against ISIL [in Libya] in conjunction with the political process” there. Subsequent reporting suggests that the White House rejected the plan for decisive military action.

  • General Dunford, can you confirm that the President overruled the Department’s proposal for decisive military action?
  • If no such action is taken, do you expect the Islamic State to expand its presence in Libya?
  • Would a substantial safe haven in Syria facilitate the Islamic State’s ability to carry out attacks in Europe? In the United States?

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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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