In a searing critique of U.S. foreign policy, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) declared on Wednesday that President Obama’s strategy for defeating ISIS in Iraq and Syria “doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in Hell of working” and called for a surge in U.S. ground troops to reverse what he sees as the dangerous course of the war.
“You have to look at Iraq and Syria as a single battle space,” Graham said in an address to the Atlantic Council, an international think tank in Washington, D.C. “If you do not, you are making a very big mistake. You will never bring stability to Iraq unless you deal with the Syrian safe-havens.”
Graham, arguably the biggest defense hawk seeking the Republican presidential nomination, gave added voice to Republicans’ growing frustration with Obama’s strategy of targeted jet fighter and drone strikes against ISIS emplacements and training and arming Iraqi government troops and moderate rebel forces to handle fighting on the ground.
Graham said that “we will need roughly 10,000 U.S. troops to once again change the tide of battle in Iraq” – or about 6,500 more than are currently being deployed. He borrowed that figure from John M. "Jack" Keane, a retired four-star general and military adviser who helped convince former President George W. Bush to order a major surge in troop deployment in Iraq in January 2007 when the war was going badly.
Graham said that the additional ground troops would be used to train and advise Iraqi troops at the battalion level, “making them far more likely to stay in the fight.” With the increased numbers, he said, U.S. forces could deploy attack helicopters to give the Iraqi army a substantial advantage over ISIS. “These numbers would also allow us to put in place robust special operations capability to apply constant pressure on ISIL’s leadership morning, noon, and night,” he said, using a different acronym for the Islamic terrorist group.
Although Kurdish rebel forces in norther Iraq have had major successes in driving away ISIS forces, Graham said that it would be a serious mistake for the U.S. to count on the Kurds for additional help in other parts of Iraq or Syria. Nonetheless, he said, the U.S. should supply better arms and equipment to the Kurds, so that they could project force from the north to supplement U.S.-led efforts in the south.
Despite a number of major setbacks, Obama defended his approach following a briefing at the Pentagon by military brass on Monday. He pointedly ruled out expanding the current deployment of 3,500 U.S. troops for the foreseeable future.
In outlining for the American people his plans to combat ISIS in May 2014, Obama vowed to supplement air strikes with U.S. efforts to train and equip moderate Syrian rebel forces. The following month, the administration requested $500 million from Congress to fund the effort, with the goal of deploying 5,000 U.S. backed fighters a year for three years.
On Tuesday, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter revealed to the Senate Armed Services Committee that just 60 Syrians were enlisted in the rebel training program until now. At the same time, Gen. Martin Dempsey, the outgoing chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified that Israel and Jordan “very much believe” in the possibility that the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could soon collapse, touching off a race between al-Qaeda and ISIS forces “converging on Damascus,” The Washington Post reported.
During his press conference at the Pentagon on Monday, Obama acknowledged that the U.S. training effort of Syrians was “moving too slowly.” However, he insisted that it was an essential element of his overall strategy of preparing Iraqi forces, Kurds and moderate Syrian rebels to defeat ISIS, rather than counting on the U.S. to carry the day.
“If we try to do everything ourselves all across the Middle East, all across North Africa, we’ll be playing whack-a-mole,” Obama said.
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