WASHINGTON — A trio of former heavyweight Obama administration officials Tuesday told lawmakers that the Islamic State group has metastasized and the US must intensify its efforts to fight it militarily and politically.
Former acting CIA Director Michael Morell warned the House Armed Services Committee that the Islamic State’s influence has grown into the United States — where the FBI is said to have more than 900 open investigations into homegrown extremists. The radical group's influence has also grown in Afghanistan and Libya, he said.
"I would not be surprised if we woke up one morning and ISIS had grabbed a large part of Libyan territory, the same kind of blitzkrieg, on a smaller scale that we saw in Iraq,” Morrell said.
While there have been several military victories in recent weeks, including the liberation of Ramadi by Iraqi troops with help from the US-led coalition, Morrell, Michael Vickers, former under secretary of Defense for intelligence, and former US ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, warned that the group was more dangerous than ever because of its evolution into a quasi-state and revolutionary political movement.
The message was not lost on House Armed Services Chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas.
“There are people inside the Obama administration who are saying they’re not doing enough,” Thornberry said.
The Senate Armed Services Committee held a hearing last month in which Defense Secretary Ash Carter and the Joint Chiefs vice chairman, Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, painted a picture of steady progress in the effort to degrade and defeat the Islamic State.
According to Morrell, the Islamic State group’s geographic territory acts not only as a propaganda tool, but a base from which it can launch indirect lone-wolf attacks and direct attacks like the Paris attacks in November. He said those kinds of attacks fueled his view, that the group, "poses a significant and lethal threat to the United States of America."
Within the territory the group controls, Ford argued that it is “more than the sum of its fighters,” because “it builds support, it recruits, it replaces fighters who are killed. It even trains little children.” As such, the US must focus on reconciliation between sectarian groups in Iraq and their interests — to develop a viable alternative.
“In order to mobilize Sunni Arabs to contain the Islamic State, there must be efforts at national reconciliation,” Ford said. “This is important because we don't want the Islamic State to be put down militarily and then revive, as happened between 2011 and 2013. I really don't want to see an Islamic State, version 2.0.”
In Syria, the former officials agreed that President Bashar al-Assad would have to be removed from power. Both Ford and Vickers said brokering Assad’s ouster and the creation of a new national unity government would be necessary to mobilize enough Syrians to fight and destroy the Islamic State.
However, Ford’s hopes were dim for the United Nations-backed peace process, where he said various nations were “goofing around” in an effort have their own allies represent the Syrian opposition.
“Syrians are not in control of this. That, to me, spells disaster, especially if the really serious, armed opposition guys who accept a political solution, are excluded from the negotiation, I can't imagine they'll sustain their support for a political deal,” Ford warned.
Militarily, Vickers said the air campaign against the Islamic State group’s fighters and infrastructure must intensify, on par with the US air campaign in Afghanistan in 2001, aimed and a possible means of denying the Islamic State its sanctuaries. He called he current campaign, “a fraction of what it should be.”
Vickers also argued for a shift in emphasis from Iraq to Syria, where the US should reinvigorate efforts to remove Assad, and increase strike sorties and the weight of strikes, along with coalition support for the moderate Syrian opposition.
Vickers said the size of the US fleet of Predator drones is “our most effective weapon in our campaign against global jihadists” and “a limiting factor in the conduct of our campaign.”
Asked by Rep. Susan Davis, D-Calif., about unintended civilian deaths that might result and the potential for it to fuel greater radicalization, Vickers acknowledged the concern and expressed confidence in precision weapons.
Vickers also echoed the White House’s approach, which has been for US advisers to work through allies and that the US must seek a long-term solution that restores a favorable balance of power and greater stability across the Middle East.
“We have to have an indigenous ground force to exploit the effects [of air power], and certainly, if you want to deny a sanctuary sooner rather than later, just like in 2001, having some ground force that can exploit the effects that are in power makes a big difference,” Vickers said. “And there, US advisers matter.”