McCain Cites San Bernardino to Prod Carter on Islamic State

Updated on
Carter Testifies About Fighting Islamic State (Statement)
  • Senator says U.S. troops must join force to move into Syria
  • Defense secretary says that would only `Americanize' war

Senator John McCain told President Barack Obama’s defense chief that American troops must join allies on the ground to destroy Islamic State’s “caliphate in Syria,” as the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino rekindled debate over U.S. strategy.

“These attacks make it clear that ISIL’s threat against our homeland is real, direct and growing, that we are not winning this war and that time is not on our side,” McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said at a hearing Wednesday, using an acronym for Islamic State.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter told the committee that such a U.S.-led effort on the ground would “Americanize the war in Iraq and Syria” without establishing the local forces needed to secure and govern reclaimed territory. Responding to McCain’s call for allies such as Saudi Arabia to play a bigger role against Islamic State, Carter said, “I too wish the Sunni Arab nations would do more.”

Carter, who acknowledged that Islamic State hasn’t been contained, said the U.S. continues to accelerate its military effort. In the effort to retake Ramadi in Iraq, Carter said the U.S. “is prepared to assist the Iraqi Army with additional unique capabilities to help them finish the job, including attack helicopters and accompanying advisers, if requested.”

‘Targeting Force’

The defense secretary, who this month announced an “expeditionary targeting force” to conduct special operations in Iraq and Syria, said Wednesday, “Where we find further opportunity to leverage such capability, we will not hesitate to expand it.”

Carter said he wouldn’t discuss details of the force to “preserve the element of surprise.” The U.S. wants “to make ISIL and its leaders wonder when they go to bed at night, who’s going to be coming in the window,” he said.

But he also underscored the Obama administration’s emphasis on efforts “to develop capable, motivated, local ground forces as the only force that can assure a lasting victory.”

QuickTake: Fighting Islamic State

McCain, who was defeated by Obama in the 2008 presidential campaign, rejected as a “straw-man argument” the administration’s suggestion that its critics want to invade Iraq and Syria with 100,000 combat troops. The Arizona Republican said he wants “several thousand additional U.S. troops,” in addition to the 3,500 already in Iraq. In addition to training and advising, he said they would “embed with and advise Iraqi units closer to the fight” and “call in airstrikes from forward positions.”

Multinational Force

But he also called for assembling a multinational force, of a size he didn’t specify, to retake Islamic State’s stronghold in Raqqa, Syria. He said such a force would be “primarily made up of Sunni Arab and European forces, but with a strong U.S. component.” He suggested allies would be more willing to join in such an effort than Carter indicated.

“As long as ISIL can claim to possess its caliphate it projects an aura of success that remains its most powerful tool” for recruiting, McCain said.

Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and presidential candidate, said he would introduce a congressional Authorization for Use of Military Force that wouldn’t place any limits of time or place on fighting Islamic State. Obama’s stalled proposal has a three-year limit and would prohibit “enduring offensive ground combat operations.”

“There’s no place on the planet we should give them safe haven,” Graham said. “We should not limit this commander-in-chief or any other commander-in-chief.”

Democrats Join In

Democrats joined their Republican colleagues in calling for more action against the militant group. “We’ve all come to the conclusion we need American forces on the ground,” said the committee’s top Democrat, Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island. “The question is how many,” and what they should do.

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York urged the administration to press Sunni allies to do more in the fight. Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut said he wants "to see our strategy become more aggressive and intensified,” with more special-operations forces sent sooner.

Several senators asked about Islamic State’s reach online, which has encouraged people such as the San Bernardino attackers. "We do operate in the cyber domain and we’re at war," Carter said. "We have authorities to use our cyber command in this case and are identifying opportunities to do that."

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