FPI Suggested Questions for SASC Islamic State Hearing

July 6, 2015

On July 7, the Senate Armed Services Committee will hold a hearing to examine the administration’s efforts to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS, also known as ISIL).  Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey will testify.

The Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI) is closely monitoring the situation in the Middle East, and believes that the following questions will be helpful for lawmakers and the general public as they examine the successes and failures of the campaign so far.

Degrading and Destroying ISIS

General Dempsey, you were recently asked if we are winning the war against ISIS. You responded, “if you’re asking is the United States winning, that’s the wrong question,” because we’re just supporting the Iraqis and others who are on the front lines. Yet as President Obama has said, “Our objective is clear. We will degrade, and ultimately destroy ISIL.”

  • After ten months of U.S. military operations, is ISIS closer to being defeated?
  • How should Congress and the American people gauge whether progress is being made in this war? Are there particular indicators we should be watching?

In an interview about the war with ISIS, General David Petraeus recently said, "These are fights where if you're not winning, you're probably losing, because time is not on your side." Secretary Carter, you recently stated, “I can't tell you that, in three years, the campaign against ISIL is going to be over.”

  • Secretary Carter and General Dempsey, do you agree that this is one of those fights in which time is not on our side, so that if we are not clearly winning then we are probably losing?
  • If we are not clearly winning, and the President says we must win, wouldn’t you recommend increasing our level of effort?

Iran’s Malign Influence

Secretary Carter, during your June testimony before Congress, you described the nine lines of the Obama administration’s strategy against ISIL, and said that the “most critical” of these is the State Department’s efforts to build more effective, inclusive and multi-sectarian governance in Iraq and Syria.

  • What impact are Iran’s activities in Iraq having on the administration’s effort to build more effective and multi-sectarian governance there?  How are Iran’s support for the Assad regime in Syria, sponsorship of sectarian militias, and deployment of foreign fighters fueling this conflict?
  • What is the administration’s plan for reducing Iranian influence in Iraq? What tangible indicators of success should we observe to determine whether the plan is working?
  • The Wall Street Journal has reported that if Iran signs a nuclear deal, the regime may receive an immediate “signing bonus” of as much as $50 billion dollars, followed by hundreds of billions more in sanctions relief.  Do you believe that Iran would use a significant portion of these funds to continue fueling this conflict and destabilizing the Middle East?

Building Partner Capacity

Secretary Carter, you have testified that within the administration’s broader strategy against ISIS, the Defense Department is responsible for two elements: “to deny ISIL safe haven and to build partnership capacity in Iraq and Syria.”  Furthermore, you have described capacity building as “the centerpiece of our military strategy,” observing that to defeat ISIS, will require “capable, motivated, legitimate local ground forces to seize, clear, and hold terrain.”

  • Secretary Carter, General Dempsey, if the United States is unable to build the effective partner forces our strategy requires, then would you agree that our kinetic military efforts will amount to little more than “whack-a-mole?”

The Associated Press has reported that the U.S. is now training fewer than 100 Syrians to fight ISIS, even though the program’s original objective was to train 5,400 fighters this year. According to the Washington Post, more than 6,000 Syrian fighters expressed interest in the training program, but the vetting process eliminated all but a handful. Secretary Carter, you told reporters that many of the volunteers were ineligible because they were not interested in fighting ISIL.

  • Secretary Carter, can you confirm that 6,000 Syrians expressed interest in the program but that only 100 met the eligibility requirements? How will you adjust your recruiting strategy in order to find more eligible fighters?
  • At this point, is there any chance that the program can train 5,400 fighters this year? What is a realistic estimate of the number of fighters who will complete their training before the end of the year? How many of those will actually be on the battlefield by year’s end?
  • Why was there interest in the training program from individuals who did not want to fight ISIS? Were they primarily interested in fighting Assad, because the regime presents the greatest threat to their families and communities?

Secretary Carter, you in June testified that the Department’s original plan called for training 24,000 Iraqis, but you’ve “only received enough recruits to be able to train about 7,000,” plus 2,000 counterterrorism personnel. This month, you announced that a total of 10,500 Iraqis have been trained. 

  • Has the Iraqi government, or factions within the Iraqi government, prevented the dispatch of a sufficient number of trainees? Or has a lack of competence prevented the Iraqi government from providing the necessary support? What measures will you take to solve these problems?
  • In contrast to our training efforts, how many Iraqi militia fighters are currently being sponsored by Iran? Is this number rising or falling? How many fighters does ISIS now have? Is this number rising or falling?
  • Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and former Under Secretary of Defense Michele Flounoy have recommended that the United States embed advisors with Iraqi Security Forces down to the battalion level.  Beyond simply stiffening the spines of our Iraqi partners, would this type of integration enhance the effectiveness of these forces, as Gates and Fluornoy suggest?

The New York Times has reported that of the 450 troops sent to the new training base at al Taqqadum, only 110 “would be directly involved in training and advising” and “there would be just 50 advisers.”  Secretary Carter, in your testimony in June, you admitted that “our equipping of the Iraqi Security Forces had proceeded too slowly.” You said, “I honestly think it’s reasonable for you [Congress] to ask in weeks” whether the situation has improved “because we're already getting an inflow of Sunni fighters.” 

  • Secretary Carter, General Dempsey, has a sufficient number of Sunni trainees arrived at al Taqaddum Air Base?  How will such a small number of American advisors and trainers be able to support Iraqi Security Force operations?
  • Can you describe the current status of the Iranian-backed militia fighters that previously occupied al Taqaddum Air Base?  Is there still an Iranian presence at that facility, and if not, where have those fighters moved to?

Denying ISIS a Safe Haven

Retired Air Force General David Deptula wrote in the Washington Post that the current air campaign is “averaging 12 strike sorties per day.”  In contrast, “During Operation Desert Storm in Iraq and Kuwait in 1991, the average was 1,241; in Operation Allied Force in Kosovo in 1999, it was 298; in the first 30 days of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, 691; during Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan in 2001, 86.” Yet General Dempsey, you testified, “I couldn’t disagree more with retired General Deptula.”

  • General Dempsey, do you dispute any of the facts on which General Deptula based his analysis, or do you simply disagree with call for additional air strikes?
  • General Dempsey, Secretary Carter, why is the U.S. launching so few airstrikes when it clearly has the capacity to launch many more? If degrading and destroying ISIS is truly a priority, why are you employing so little of the country’s military capacity?

The Pentagon reports that ISIS “can no longer freely operate in 25 to 30 percent of populated areas of Iraqi territory where it once could” – an area totaling 5,000 to 6,500 square miles.  In contrast, an independent report from Defense One and the Institute for the Study of War concluded that ISIS has actually expanded its overall territory since the air campaign against ISIS began.

  • Secretary Carter, General Dempsey, is ISIS today capable of conducting operations in a more territory across Iraq and Syria than it was in September 2014, when Coalition airstrikes began?
  • Are the areas from which ISIS has been evicted predominately in the Kurdish areas of northern Iraq, rather than in the Sunni-dominated west?
  • Approximately how many fighters have been killed in coalition operations? Have these losses reduced the overall size of ISIS, or significantly diminished the territory it controls?
  • Brett McGurk, the President’s Deputy Special Envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition, said during the White House’s June 10 conference call with reporters that the basing U.S. personnel at al Taqqadum Air Base will “greatly improve our ability to turn around airstrikes in a pretty fast clip.”  How will this facility enable more rapid and more numerous airstrikes against ISIS targets?

The New York Times reported on May 26 that “American officials say they are not striking significant, and obvious, Islamic State targets out of fear that the attacks will accidentally kill civilians…. But many Iraqi commanders and some American officers say that exercising such prudence with airstrikes is a major reason [ISIS], has been able to seize vast territory in recent months in Iraq and Syria.”

  • General Dempsey, Secretary Carter, can you detail the precise restrictions that govern America’s airstrikes against ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria?
  • Would you agree with The New York Times’ reporting that the current rules governing airstrikes have allowed ISIS forces a tactical advantage and allowed them to expand their territory?

Supporting the Kurds

Secretary Carter, you praised Kurdish forces as a model for other Iraqis to emulate, saying, “They show will the to fight. They show the capability to fight.” You have also testified that despite Baghdad’s previous efforts to prevent foreign weapons from reaching the Kurds, “now it’s getting directly to the Kurds, not only our stuff but some of the stuff that’s coming from Europe and elsewhere.”

  • Secretary Carter, General Dempsey, how have you been able to confirm that U.S. and foreign weapons are reaching Kurdish forces more quickly? Are there American personnel on the ground who can confirm the deliveries?

The Wall Street Journal reported two weeks ago that the Kurdish peshmerga militias are “the least armed and equipped when compared with the Iraqi army, the Iranian-backed Shiite militias or, crucially, Islamic State itself. Peshmerga ammunition stocks are running low and whatever heavy weapons they have are mostly of Saddam Hussein-era vintage.”

  • General Dempsey, have new deliveries of weaponry fully resolved the shortages reported by the Wall Street Journal?  If not, what shortages can you identify at this point?
  • Secretary Carter, you have previously insisted that the Obama administration will continue to arm Kurdish peshmerga forces through an “angle shot” that flows through the central government in Baghdad.  Under what circumstances would you advocate directly arming Kurdish forces?


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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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