SecDef: The Strategy Against the Islamic State Is Working

Defense Secretary Ash Carter walks with Lt. Gen. James Terry, the commander of U.S. Army Central after the Regional Security Conference at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, on Feb. 23, 2015.

DoD Photo by Glenn Fawcett

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Defense Secretary Ash Carter walks with Lt. Gen. James Terry, the commander of U.S. Army Central after the Regional Security Conference at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, on Feb. 23, 2015.

After a day-long conference in Kuwait, Defense Secretary Ash Carter left open the possibility of a sharpened U.S. approach against the Islamic State.

KUWAIT CITY, Kuwait — Fresh from a nearly day-long discussion with top military and diplomatic officials here about the best way forward in Iraq and Syria, Defense Secretary Ash Carter told reporters Monday he doesn’t think the administration’s current strategy needs a fundamental overhaul.

But in remarks after the consultations, Carter spoke broadly about ways in which he thinks the strategy could be tightened or refined, leaving open the door for larger changes down the line.

“I think we have the ingredients of a strategy,” Carter told reporters in a brief press conference held in a military courtroom. The defense secretary used the building housing the courtroom to convene the special meeting of senior officers and diplomats amid the sprawling U.S. military base in Kuwait.

Carter hinted that while the strategy did not need to change fundamentally, it could use some sharpening. That could include pushing some of the nations in the 60-member coalition fighting the Islamic State, or ISIS, to contribute more. And Carter said there could be more emphasis on not only the military but also the diplomatic aspects of the strategy against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. He also seemed certain that the U.S. had to counter the Islamic State’s use of social media, where it has been particularly effective as a recruiting tool and in shaping the narrative of the operation. This would also help to win the war of perceptions in Washington, as disagreements over strategy among policy makers upstage what gains the U.S.-led coalition’s air war has made.

ISIL’s use of social media will be pressing us to be more creative in combatting it in the information dimension, as well as the physical dimension,” Carter said.

The conference Carter assembled in his first week of office was intended to be a discussion of the strategy to defeat the Islamic State, not a precursor for an overhaul of the approach, senior defense officials were careful to point out.

“Today, we have heard form the secretary that the strategy is sound, the strategy is working,” said a senior military official. “There are pieces of the strategy where I think he thinks we could do a better job.”

The unusual summit in Kuwait, planned over just days and billed as the “Counter ISIL Political-Military Consultations,” included about 25 principal guests, from Carter’s four-star combatant commanders – from U.S. Africa, Europe and Central Commands – as well the commanders of Special Operations Command and the Joint Special Operations Command. It also included U.S. ambassadors from Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, among others. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey did not attend, as he was traveling overseas.

There was one rule during the seven-hour meeting: senior military officers, who tend to rely on PowerPoint slides, were not allowed to bring them into the discussion. Instead, two-star generals talked on par with four-star officers. And the military and the diplomatic communities who convened across the table from each other were forced to exchange ideas freely.

“We had an incisive, candid, wide-ranging discussion — there were no briefings, it was the sharing of experience, ideas and the expertise that made me very proud of the American team out here in this region ,” Carter said afterward.

Carter, in his seventh day on the job, was not expected to announce a shift in course in the strategy to counter ISIL. Any recommendations he may want to make would likely be formulated in the days after Monday’s discussion. Carter would then brief the White House on those recommendations before releasing publicly the extent of his thinking on the strategy. And although aides reiterated Monday that Carter believes the strategy is working today, it’s clear he has left himself plenty of room to recommend larger adjustments later this spring.

Next month, the Pentagon’s so-called train-and-equip program is expected to kick off. U.S. officials expect to train more than 5,000 moderate Syrian rebels per year for the next three years after identifying, vetting and training them. But it’s a monumental and extremely difficult task, since the training will be conducted at four sites in three other countries: Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, and not in Syria.

The U.S. is still training Afghan forces several years after starting a train-and-equip program there. And a small team of advisers has returned to Iraq to help those forces take the fight to the Islamic State.

Washington’s train-and-equip plan has many critics who believe it does too little too slowly and that the rebel forces may not be adequately trained to turn back the Islamic State, which is the current focus of the program.

Carter said the plan for training and equipping moderate Syrian forces is sufficient based on the broad experience of American forces to conduct such training.

“I would say it’s one of the key lessons that we learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s one of the key skills we honed, and I don’t think there’s any military that does it better,” he said. “I think we have that kind of tradecraft down.”

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