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Nine months into an effort to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels to fight against Islamic State militants, U.S. defense officials acknowledged that they have only "four or five" on the battlefield now and only a few dozen more on the way.

The statement drew gasps and laughs of horror from members of the Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday, and a swift indictment of President Obama's foreign policy from several Republicans on the panel.

It also raised questions about the future role of U.S. troops in the region, both those training the Syrian forces and those working with Iraqi troops on trying to prevent ISIS militants from overthrowing their war-torn country.

"We need forward air controllers to add precision and lethality to our air campaign. We need to make significant changes in order to improve and rapidly expand our training of Syrian and Iraqi forces," said committee chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. "The fact is that we will likely need additional U.S. special forces and military advisers to be successful."

About 3,500 American troops are deployed to Iraq. White House and Pentagon officials repeatedly have promised not to put those troops directly on the battlefield, and argued that local forces must push back the insurgent fighters to ensure long-term security in the region.

But McCain and other panel members called those plans so far a "total failure" that administration officials cannot continue to ignore. Officials had originally hoped to train up to 5,000 Syrian rebels by the end of the year.

Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Christine Wormuth acknowledged that "there have been setbacks along the way" in the U.S. response in the region, but insisted that "progress has been slow but steady."

Army Gen. Lloyd Austin III, chief of U.S Central Command, sidestepped comments made earlier this month from outgoing Joint Chiefs Chairman Army Gen. Martin Dempsey that the fight against ISIS has become a stalemate, noting that "setbacks are to be expected in the early stages of the fight."

Both sets of comments drew blistering criticism from senators, who said predictions of a years-long fight with incremental progress make the positive assessments appear delusional. U.S. airstrikes began in the region nearly 13 months ago.

Wednesday's hearing was held against the backdrop of a Pentagon's inspector general investigation into whistleblower claims that CENTCOM officials have doctored intelligence assessments to present a more positive picture of progress in the region.

McCain said his committee will conduct its own investigation into the claims, which threaten to undermine the Pentagon's credibility and public support for the military mission.

Austin denied any such meddling on his part, and promised an internal review to assess the problem. But he also repeated claims of signs of progress in Iraq, and rebuffed lawmakers' suggestions that a radical policy change is needed to win the fight.

"So, basically you're telling us everything is fine … as we see thousands of refugees flee, as we see 250,000 Syrians slaughtered in the war," McCain responded. "I've never seen testimony as divorced from the reality of every outside expert as this."

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