Shell Shocked

The Pentagon Is Officially Clueless About the ISIS War

Where’s the legal justification for the war? Will American troops fight? And who are they really battling? The answers to all those key questions appear to be: TBD.

11.13.14 9:35 PM ET

On this much, all of Washington can agree: The United States is at war with ISIS. But beyond that, the nation’s executive and legislative branches have got nothing.

On the most salient questions of the day—coming ISIS strategy, the president’s legal justification for war, ISIS’s strength, the status of ISIS’s leader—congressional and administration officials are merely sitting on a pile of questions, with seemingly little unified commitment to find answers.

For starters: No one knows what the future strategy against ISIS will look like. CNN reported Wednesday that the president had asked top national-security officials to review their ISIS strategy—especially the decision to fight the extremist group without tackling President Bashar al-Assad, too.

Asked about this report, and whether administration policy was shifting, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel dodged the question by responding in the present tense. 

“There is no change in the strategy,” he told members of Congress at a House Armed Services Committee hearing. “There is no change, and there is no different direction.”

Second: No one knows whether American troops will be deployed in combat roles to help the Iraqi army.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey said Thursday that the United States is “certainly considering” that American forces could accompany Iraqi troops into combat in more “complex” operations, such as retaking Mosul, or operations in Western Iraq.

What’s more, no one knows when a legal justification for the anti-ISIS campaign will be passed, or what it will look like.

In Congress’ first week back after the midterm elections, confusion reigned over the status of legislation that would authorize the president to use military force against ISIS, known as an AUMF, or Authorization for Use of Military Force.

Emerging from a private briefing late Wednesday evening, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) said that Democrats had “broad support” among themselves for voting on an AUMF before the end of the year. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) echoed this sentiment, telling The Daily Beast, “I think you’ll see us take it up, and I think we need to as soon as we can.”

But if Democrats had the idea that they would pass a war authorization quickly, they must not have consulted broadly with Republicans, who were cool to the idea and soon to regain control of the Senate from them.

“I don’t think that’s going to happen,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), who is expected to become the new chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who will soon take the reins of the Senate Armed Services Committee, similarly said he was open to doing the AUMF in 2014, but that it shouldn’t be rushed. Both wanted the president to take the lead on offering a draft war authorization.

When Defense Secretary Hagel was asked about it the next day, however, he was in the dark about how the legal justification of the war would develop.

“I don’t know specifically what they’re going to propose,” said the Obama administration’s top official at the Defense Department. “I don’t know if they’re going to send it up as a legislative proposal.”

Rep. Walter Jones, an antiwar Republican, was one of the few to give voice to the problem.

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“This is nothing but an abdication of our constitutional responsibility to give any president an AUMF,” he told the members of the House Armed Services Committee.

And perhaps it should go without saying at this point that no one knows the strength of the enemy America is fighting. 

It’s been a recurring problem for American intelligence—how do they fight an enemy whose numbers they can’t estimate? On Thursday, Gen. Dempsey laid out yet another set of assessments for ISIS strength: The general estimated that ISIS had between 15,000 and 18,000 “core” fighters, which could rise to between 21,000 and 31,000. Two-thirds of these fighters are in Syria, he told a congressional committee, while one-third was based in Iraq.

This differs from what Gen. Lloyd Austin, the commander entrusted with executing American military policy in the Middle East, said just one week ago. Austin said that ISIS’s numbers ranged from 9,000 to 17,000. And previous CIA estimates had suggested up to 30,000 fighters in ISIS’s ranks.

Finally, if the U.S. knows what has happened to the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, officials have declined to say so publicly. 

Numerous media outlets reported Thursday that, after days of rumors over the Islamic State leader’s death, he had released a new speech by audio indicating that he was alive.

Hagel declined to confirm or deny whether Baghdadi was, in fact, among the living. “Those are areas that we should probably get into in a classified hearing,” the defense secretary said.

By the end of a three-hour briefing, just four or five members of Congress remained to hear the end of Hagel and Dempsey’s testimony, out of a committee of 62.

Even the demonstrators were timid. As the committee adjourned, an antiwar protester shouted, “Are we allowed to say something?” before a polite lecture on the foolishness of sending additional troops to the Middle East. “Been there, done that,” she said.