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U.S. ‘step-by-step’ strategy against Islamic State questioned in Congress

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced that the U.S. will be deploying more special forces to assist Iraqi and Peshmerga forces targeting the Islamic State, and will be authorized to take direct action. Some lawmakers questioned whether the U.S. is making progress in the fight against ISIS. Judy Woodruff gets reaction from House Armed Services Committee chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    The U.S. strategy against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, came in for some direct questions today before the House Armed Services Committee, as the U.S. announced that more forces will be heading to Iraq to fight the extremist group.

    Pentagon leaders came to the hearing with a response to calls to do more against the Islamic State.

  • ASHTON CARTER, Defense Secretary:

    In full coordination with the government of Iraq, we're deploying a specialized expeditionary targeting force to assist Iraqi and Kurdish Peshmerga forces.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Defense Secretary Ash Carter said the force will be larger than 50, and be authorized to take direct action, including combat.

  • ASHTON CARTER:

    These special operators will, over time, be able to conduct raids, free hostages, gather intelligence and capture ISIL leaders. This force will also be in a position to conduct unilateral operations in Syria.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    The U.S. already has 3,500 U.S. troops in Iraq, supporting that country's military, and a few dozen special operations troops are assigned to support local fighters in Syria against ISIL.

    Carter said today the U.S. is — quote — "at war," and the force he announced is a new way of achieving the objective.

  • ASHTON CARTER:

    We're actually eager to do more, because that will accelerate the defeat of ISIL. But it hinges upon us finding the capable local forces that we can enable in this way.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    A number of Republicans have called for sending in far more troops, but, in Paris today, President Obama again rejected that idea.

  • PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:

    For some reason, too often in Washington, American leadership is defined by whether or not we're sending troops somewhere. Where we strengthen our relationships and influence the most is when we are helping to organize the world around a particular problem.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Back at the hearing, the country's top military officer, Marine General Joseph Dunford, acknowledged ISIL has not been contained, but he said stepped-up airstrikes are cutting into the militants' oil revenues.

    Even so, Ohio Republican Michael Turner challenged Secretary Carter on claims of progress.

    REP. MICHAEL TURNER (R), Ohio: Are we winning, Mr. Secretary?

  • ASHTON CARTER:

    We will win.

  • REP. MICHAEL TURNER:

    Are we winning now?

  • ASHTON CARTER:

    We are going to win.

  • REP. MICHAEL TURNER:

    Well, Mr. Secretary, I admit, you know, most of us, on both sides of the aisle, do not have confidence that you have a strategy, and you do not have a strategy based on an accurate assessment. I think your presentation here today shows a disconnect between what — all the information that we're receiving, and really what's being placed into the United States' effort.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Meanwhile in Iraq, Shiite Muslim militias warned they will attack any new American force that deploys there.

    For more, we turn to the chairman of the Housed Armed Services Committee, Republican Mac Thornberry of Texas. I spoke with him just a short time ago.

    Welcome, Chairman Mac Thornberry.

    Let me begin by just asking, what is your understanding now of these additional steps the Obama administration is going to be taking in the fight against ISIS?

  • REP. MAC THORNBERRY Chairman, House Armed Services Committee:

    Well, obviously, the Obama administration is trying to respond to Paris and other terrorist attacks, so they label these eight adaptations, because they don't want to admit what they have been doing so far is not working, so these are adaptations, slight changes to what they have been doing and they hope it's more successful.

    You know, my fear is that it is too much of a gradual approach that is not really going to change the conditions on the ground or the ideological battle in which ISIS is excelling.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Well, Secretary Carter called it, I believe, a — quote — "specialized expeditionary targeting force."

    And we're hearing reporting that it could be as many as 200 troops or more. Why do you think that's — that could be inadequate?

  • REP. MAC THORNBERRY:

    Well, I do think they're taking just step-by-step sort of approach.

    So, people have been calling for some time about putting some of our folks on the ground to help make airstrikes more effective, and that sounds like what the secretary talked about today, although he did say that they could carry out raids and so forth.

    But — and if it is 200 people, then it is a small fraction of what we once had, for example, in just Iraq. So that's the reason I think a number of us are concerned that the president is responding to events, rather than trying to figure out how to actually degrade and destroy ISIS, and then putting the resources behind that.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Well, you have talked about the need for the president to put a four-star general in charge of this somewhere in the region. Are you saying that there's a number of troops who should be on the ground that the administration hasn't agreed to yet?

  • REP. MAC THORNBERRY:

    No, I don't get caught up in numbers. What I get caught up in is a strategy to actually succeed.

    And my biggest fear is that what we have seen and what we have seen so far is that there's been micromanagement from the White House. You heard that testimony today. There are 3,500 U.S. troops in Iraq. If they want to add 100, they have got to go all the way to the president to get his approval to add 25 or 100.

    So it's that micromanagement from the White House that is one of the constraints on our efforts. And so that's the reason I say there needs to be a four-star in the region in charge, and he needs to have the authority to be successful, rather than run and ask mother may I for every additional 25 troops that he thinks he needs.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Well, speaking of Iraq, Prime Minister Abadi said late today that he doesn't believe there should be any more foreign troops in his country. So, how do you reconcile that? You're saying if the U.S. believes it should send more troops, it should. What about the will of these sovereign countries and their own leaders?

  • REP. MAC THORNBERRY:

    Well, unfortunately, Iraq has become more and more a proxy for Iran.

    And so the country that is putting lots of troops on the ground, as well as directing the Shiite militias, is their neighbor Iran. And that certainly makes things more complicated. So, if we — that's the reason, for example, the bill that Congress passed and now the president has signed would allow the president to provide arms directly to the Kurds, directly to the Sunni tribes, rather than go through the Baghdad government, because Iran is increasingly calling the shots there.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    As you know, the administration, Chairman Mac Thornberry, you know the administration is saying that this needs to be done in coordination with the countries in the region. Are you saying that the U.S. should be calling the shots, no matter what the countries in the region want?

  • REP. MAC THORNBERRY:

    Oh, of course not.

    But I also think it is absolutely, as the former Obama undersecretary of defense for intelligence wrote about a week ago, that the countries in the region are not going to step forward unless the U.S. takes a decisive leadership role. So it's a chicken and the egg.

    We can't do it without them, and they're not going to do it unless they know we're committed, and they know that we're going to stay with the mission. See, part of the problem is the countries in the region remember that we abandoned Iraq in 2011 and that has contributed been — that has contributed to this mess.

    So they — we have to earn their trust back. And that's going to take some time and effort.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    But, in the end, who's calling the shots?

  • REP. MAC THORNBERRY:

    Well, there is no substitute for U.S. leadership. Now, we need to do it with a coalition. There needs to be Muslims on the ground to help carry this out.

    But nobody can take the place of the United States. And that's the reason that I believe a four-star on the ground in charge, empowered to call the shots is really needed to help focus these efforts.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And do you have any sense the administration is prepared to do that?

  • REP. MAC THORNBERRY:

    I don't know. They — they make good noises about the authority of the guy that they have currently in Kuwait, and he's a good guy. I don't take anything away from him.

    What I worry about, again, is the White House aides micromanaging everything that goes on there. We cannot have a successful military operation run from the basement of the White House.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Congressman Mac Thornberry, we thank you.

  • REP. MAC THORNBERRY:

    Thanks for having me.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And a note: We expect to hear the Obama administration's perspective later this week.

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