In the span of two hours, a cornerstone of the U.S. strategy toward the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Iraq and Syria crumbled—loudly, and in public.
Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, the general in charge of the war effort made clear that the U.S. strategy for arming “moderate” Syrian fighters had failed. Of the thousands of fighters they had hoped to train, just “four or five” are currently in the fight in Syria.
And with that, Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, commander of U.S. Central Command, came under a blistering, bipartisan attack about the strategy in Syria and Iraq.
Senators called the strategy “a joke,” “an abject failure” and in deep need of revision. But neither Austin—testifying alongside Christine Wormuth, the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy—nor the critical senators had any better ideas.
And even as Central Command comes under investigation for allegations that intelligence was altered to offer a rosier picture of the campaign against ISIS, Austin appeared before the committee to give an essentially optimistic overview of the effort.
“Despite some slow movement at the tactical level, we continue to make progress across the battlespace in support of the broader U.S. government strategy to degrade and ultimately defeat ISIL,” Austin told the assembled committee.
The committee, and a growing number of critics, have charged that this representation is at odds with the facts on the ground.
“I've been a member of the committee for nearly 30 years and I've never heard testimony like this. Never,” said Sen. John McCain, the chairman of the committee.
The 10-month, $500 million U.S. effort to train and equip moderate Syria had yielded a “small number” of fighters, Austin said, far short of the 15,000 planned over a three-year period.
“The ones that are in the fight, we are talking four or five,” Austin told the stunned committee.
The U.S. military has spent $43 million of the $500 million allotted by Congress, or roughly $9 million per fighter. (The U.S. had originally planned to have 5,400 fighters trained by now.) Wormuth said the U.S. military was considering alternative plans but refused to say what those plans were or when they may be rolled out.
“The new Syrian Force Program has gotten off to slow start,” Austin deadpanned, in response to the 5,395-man deficit in the number of fighters the U.S. hoped to train this year.
“At the pace we're going, we won't reach the goal that we had initially established for ourselves,” Austin said, matter-of-factly.
Rather, Austin and Wormuth made small concessions but did not suggest any changes to the policy.
Austin suggested that the U.S. had special operators on the ground in Syria. His subordinates later had to take that back. In a statement afterward, CENTCOM said: “There are no U.S. military forces on the ground in Syria, nor have we conducted any U.S. military training of indigenous Syrian forces in Syria.” Any training effort of fighters in Syria is happening outside the country, CENTCOM said.
Wednesday’s testimony was the latest in a string of bad news for the administration in its fight against ISIS, and furthest bolstered feelings of a directionless U.S. military “divorced from reality” as Arizona Sen. John McCain, the committee’s chairman, told Austin and Wormuth.
“There is only so long you can polish that turd,” said Christopher Harmer, a senior naval analyst with the Middle East Security Project at the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for the Study of War.
As The Daily Beast reported, the Pentagon Inspector general is conducting an investigation into whether analysts stationed at CENTCOM were pressured to alter their assessments. When questioned Wednesday, Austin said he had “absolutely not” ever ordered such changes.
On Tuesday, Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook told reporters that the military had deferred its response to Russia’s ramp of troops and equipment to Syria to the State Department. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter had not called his Russian counterpart, Cook said. On Wednesday, Secretary of State John Kerry said Russia, met with silence from their U.S. counterparts, proposed military talks with the United States.
"The Russians proposed ... that we have military-to-military conversation ...to discuss what precisely what will be done to deconflict with respect to any potential risks that might be run and to have a complete and clear understanding as to the road ahead and what the intentions are," Kerry told reporters Wednesday.
All the while, more than 1 million refugees overwhelm European governments as they stream out of Syria. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has estimated that more than 4 million refugees total have fled Syria to escape the violence taking place there now.
Wednesday’s testimony was to some so damning of the strategy that it left a palpable feeling of concern in parts of the Pentagon. The chatter in the hallways was one of shock at the testimony, and the reception Austin received from a committee usually friendly to those in uniform.
"That was really bad," one officer said to another.
"There are a lot of long faces around here," said another.
Throughout the hearing, senators began tossing out their own tactical ideas. Perhaps the U.S. should establish a buffer zone to stop Syrian regime forces from attacking civilians, McCain proposed. Perhaps some of the $500 million to train moderate Syrian fighters should go to proven Kurdish forces instead, Sen. Claire McCaskill mused. Maybe the Pentagon should do more to counter ISIS’s aggressive online campaign, Sen. Mazie Hirono tossed out to the hearing room.
But in reality, none of those ideas alone are enough to defeat ISIS, Austin and Wormuth essentially said. And the senators stopped short of proposing U.S. ground troops or a wider U.S. effort.
It was notable that lawmakers, even Democrats who are generally supportive of the Obama administration, were taken aback by the missteps in the ongoing ISIS campaign. McCaskill essentially asked Austin when it would come time to admit that the train and equip program had been a failure. Her colleague Sen. Tim Kaine added that he had "major concerns" about the administration's strategy.
Since the U.S. and the coalition launched its air campaign against ISIS last year, officials have repeatedly said airstrikes alone would not “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS as President Obama vowed. Rather those strikes had to support ground forces. But in both Iraq and Syria, U.S. officials have struggled to find such forces. In Syria, the U.S. decided to train its own forces, “moderate” fighters who vowed to fight ISIS above Assad. But by this summer, as the first class of such fighters finished training, they fled. Up until Austin’s comments, the U.S. refused to say how many fighters were on the battlefield.
As recently last week, Pentagon press secretary Cook refused to concede that the U.S. military likely would not train 5,000-plus fighters before the end of the year, even as there are only 120 fighters getting U.S. training through an eight-week program.
Sen. Kaine noted that the Pentagon was not alone to blame as Congress has stopped short of authorizing the war—or making efforts to stop it. Kaine said the senators would acting more like editorial writers than legislators.
“We are acting like fans in the stadium. We still have not authorized this war,” Kaine said. “We are supposed to be owners of this team.”