WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Ash Carter told senators Wednesday that adding a significant U.S. ground force to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria would be counterproductive, saying that would "Americanize" the fight and result in backlash.
There about 3,500 U.S. troops in Iraq, mainly training and advising Iraqi security forces. Last week, Carter announced that smaller contingents of special operations forces would be sent to Iraq and Syria to conduct raids and advise local forces. But on Wednesday, Carter said he and Marine Gen.Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have not recommended deploying ground combat units to the region.
"While we certainly have the capability to furnish a U.S. component to such a ground force, we have not recommended this course of action for several reasons," Carter said. "In the near term, it would be a significant undertaking that, much as we may wish otherwise, realistically, we would embark upon largely by ourselves; and it would be ceding our comparative advantage of special forces, mobility, and firepower, instead fighting on the enemy's terms. In the medium-term, by seeming to Americanize the conflicts in Iraq and Syria, we could well turn those fighting ISIL or inclined to resist their rule into fighting us instead."
Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, scoffed at that presumption, saying he didn't understand Carter's logic. He called for a U.S.-led international force to defeat the Islamic State, also known as ISIL. As long as they control Raqqa, its self-proclaimed capital in Syria, the Islamic State will continue to be able to mount attacks.
"We are not winning this war, and time is not on our side," McCain said.
The Nov. 13 ISIL terrorist attacks in Paris that killed 130 people and the ISIL-inspired attack last week in San Bernardino, Calif., that claimed 14 lives has added urgency to the fight. President Obama sought to assure the nation in a televised address Sunday that the right strategy was in place to defeat the Islamic State and called for patience.
Last week, Carter announced that the Pentagon plans to send a special operations team to Iraq to conduct raids, capture ISIL leaders and free hostages. The unit is expected to include 100 troops. He also committed to adding more special forces advisers to a 50-man unit scheduled to train fighters in Syria.
McCain derided the Pentagon's strategy as too limited and moving too slowly to deal with the ISIL threat. He called for a larger force of U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria. Those forces would train and advise Iraqi forces and embed them closer to the fight, including troops who can call in airstrikes. He also advocated sending U.S. troops to help retake Raqqa, the Islamic State's de facto capital in Syria.
Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said deploying a significant force of U.S. troops to the region would be counterproductive.
"Putting large numbers of U.S. troops on the ground in Iraq and Syria would play directly into the ISIL narrative we are working to defeat – potentially providing our enemies a propaganda victory that could be exploited for recruiting and fundraising purposes," Reed said.