When the issue on Capitol Hill is U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, skepticism is often the prevailing view.
That’s certainly what top defense officials encountered Wednesday when they appeared before lawmakers to explain American strategy, amid efforts to send more American forces to Iraq, the shifting alliances in the fight against terrorism and the persistent questions about what victory would look like.
“What is considered a win?” Rep. Donald Norcross, D-N.J., asked Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Norcross likened the fight against Islamic extremists to a game of “Whac-A-Mole.”
Carter said the goal is to remove their safe havens; not to eliminate, “every mole, but every mole hole.”
Appearing before the House Armed Services Committee, the Defense chief said the U.S. has a responsibility to take an active role in combating the Islamic State terrorist group, known by the acronyms ISIS and ISIL. But other regional groups and states have to step up as well to ensure future regional stability, Carter said, singling out allies like Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
The cornerstone of current U.S. military policy in the region is training and equipping local forces in the fight against ISIS, particularly Sunni militias in Iraq, Carter said. But while the Obama administration had hoped to have 24,000 Iraqi volunteers trained and equipped by later this year, only 7,000 have so far volunteered.
Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., questioned whether working with Baghdad was necessary or even possible anymore. He also asked the witnesses if the military should focus on training and equipping the Kurds, an ethnic group whose territory nestles against Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria, and which is also battling ISIS.
“The cow has left the barn,” Smith said. “Iraq is fractured.”
Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, the committee chairman, wondered whether the recent order to send 450 additional troops to Iraq would have any impact.
“The numbers are not as significant as the location,” Carter replied, noting that troops would be stationed “in the heart of Sunni territory and it will make a big difference in the effort to train and equip Sunni fighters.”
The secretary said there has recently been an increase in the number of recruits and positive results could be seen in Iraq in the next few weeks. However, several committee members questioned the effectiveness of American efforts in Iraq and Syria.
Rep. Martha McSally, R-R.I., said the “incoherence” of American strategy in the region – supporting Iranian actions countering ISIS in Iraq, but opposing them in Yemen, for example – might keep our Sunni partners from taking on a greater role.
Lawmakers also expressed concerns about curbing Iran’s influence in the region. Carter said the 35,000 American troops stationed in the Middle East provide support for Israel and other regional allies, as well as a check on Iranian influence.
Aside from the Islamic State, “Iranian malign influence is the other major challenge in the region,” Carter said