Correction: Due to a reporting error, an earlier version of this article published at 2:02 p.m. ET misattributed a quote by Sen. Mike Lee to Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.
WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Ash Carter told lawmakers on Wednesday that adding a significant US ground force to the fight against the Islamic State group would “Americanize” the fight and fuel “a call to jihad” in Iraq and Syria.
The Pentagon is urgently calling on Congress to lift a hold on $116 million in funding for its rebooted Syria train-and-equip program after Gen. Lloyd Austin, the chief of US Central Command, revealed its stunning failure at a Capitol Hill hearing in September. The $500-million program had only a handful of trained Syrian fighters left.
Despite pressure from lawmakers, Carter said that he and Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have not recommended sending US ground troops. The US has deployed about 3,500 US troops to Iraq in noncombat roles, and Carter announced last week that it would deploy a new “specialized expeditionary force” to augment US special operations forces there and assist local forces.
“While we certainly have the capability to furnish a US component to such a ground force, we have not recommended this course of action for several reasons,” Carter told the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC). “In the near-term, it would be a significant undertaking that, 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.”
This raised the ire of SASC Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., who questioned Carter’s logic — arguing that as long as the Islamic State controls its stronghold, Raqqa, that it will be able to orchestrate attacks and grow into neighboring countries, like Libya. McCain pressed for the US to be part of a larger multinational force to “go in there and take those people out.”
“There is 20[,000] to 30,000 of them,” McCain said. “They are not giants.”
In a sign the White House and Pentagon are intensifying their efforts, Carter said he is willing to send American helicopters and troops to Anbar province to help the Iraqi military forces close in on and seize Ramadi from Islamic State militants.
“The United States is prepared to assist the Iraqi army with additional unique capabilities to help them finish the job, including attack helicopters and accompanying advisers if circumstances dictate and if requested by Prime Minister [Hader al-] Abadi,” Carter said.
His comments came amid reports that the Iraqi security forces have advanced into downtown Ramadi and seized a key military operations center.
Hundreds of US troops are deployed in Anbar province, but their mission has been limited primarily to inside-the-wire training activities at Al Asad Air Base and Taqaddum Air Base.
Carter, in his last appearance before the committee, said “we’re at war” with the Islamic State, also called ISIL or ISIS. Since then, 14 people died a San Bernardino, California, couple inspired by the terror group, prompting President Obama to make a televised address reassuring the nation a strategy to defeat the Islamic State is in place.
After the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in Paris, and intensified by San Bernardino, Obama has come under increased scrutiny from lawmakers — particularly Republicans — for not adopting a more aggressive strategy to wipe out Islamic State group strongholds in Iraq and Syria.
US forces have been involved in airstrikes and training assistance in the region for 16 months without a new military force authorization for the mission, which Obama called for Congress to provide in the televised address.
On Wednesday, Carter said the targeting force — operating at the invitation of the Iraqi government — will be used to gather intelligence, conduct raids more frequently, capture Islamic State leaders and free hostages, Carter said.
“We want this expeditionary targeting force to make ISIL and its leaders wonder when they go to bed at night, who’s going to be coming in the window,” Carter said.
One tenet of the administration’s strategy is to develop capable, motivated, local ground forces, with US and coalition forces enabling them. A US presence, military officials worry, would prove a recruiting tool for the Islamic State.
“If we fall into the trap of radical Islamic violent extremists baiting us into a ground fight, we’re actually doing exactly what they want us to do,” said Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
Because the territory ISIS occupies is mostly Sunni, the Pentagon would like to see indigenous local Sunni fighters working with the support of Sunni Arab allies from the region. Despite their initial participation in the air campaign, however, Gulf allies are “disinclined” to provide ground troops, particularly as they are preoccupied with the war in Yemen, Carter said.
Carter “urgently” called on Congress to lift "holds" on the final tranche of funds in the Syria equipping program, which amounts to about $116 million dollars. The Pentagon is seeking the money to provide and transport ammunition, weapons, and other equipment for anti-ISIS fighters in Syria, like the Syrian-Arab Coalition.
“We need these funds to provide and transport ammunition, weapons and other equipment to further enable the progress being made against ISIL in Syria by partners like the Syrian-Arab coalition,” Carter said.
McCain pushed back, citing an obligation to taxpayers. The previous effort yielded a handful of fighters for roughly $40 million spent, a result Carter acknowledged as “disappointing.”
While the previous program sought to build fighting units, the new program is working with existing units such as the Syrian Arab Coalition. Rather than vet fighters to the individual level, the US has vetted the allegiances of 20 of the group’s leaders, which with a force of 1,600, is working their way through three villages in eastern Syria, Carter said.
The US does not exercise command and control over these forces, but “we exercise influence,” Selva said. The relationship is “transactional” with the US providing ammunition and advice to strike specific targets.
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, asked whether the fighters share the same goals and vision for Syria as the US, and whether those goals might one day shift out of alignment.
Selva declined to provide a full answer outside of a classified setting, but said, “Today they share the goal of wanting to take their homes back and beat ISIL in doing so. And that is necessary and sufficient to get at the fight in eastern Syria and working our way back towards Raqqa."
Staff writer Andrew Tilghman contributed to this report.