Only “four or five” U.S.-trained Syrians are still fighting, the embattled tatters of the Pentagon’s $500 million program to train and equip a 15,000-strong ground force to take the fight to the Islamic State in Syria.
“It’s a small number, the ones that are in the fight—we’re talking four or five,” U.S. Central Command commander Gen. Lloyd Austin told the Senate’s Armed Services Committee Wednesday morning.
Austin’s words shocked the senators, who probed the program in a hearing on the ISIS fight. “Let’s not kid ourselves—that’s a joke,” said Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H.
Defense Under Secretary for Policy Christine Wormuth confirmed that the program is currently training 100 to 120 fighters, with more in the pipeline.
“Between 100 and 120—so we’re counting on our fingers and toes at this point, when we had envisioned 5,400 by the end of the year,” Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said. “And I’m just worried this is one of those instances where the good news about our military is dominating, ‘we can do this, we can do this,’ and the practical realities of this strategy aren’t being fully embraced.”
In July, three months into the program, Defense Secretary Ash Carter told the committee that the U.S. was training only 60 fighters, a number “much smaller than we hoped for at this point.”
“I can look at your faces and you have the same reaction I do, which is that’s an awfully small number,” he said at the time. He promised it would “get larger over time.”
But disappointment has followed disappointment. That first group was reportedly scattered and many of its members kidnapped almost immediately after being reinserted into Syria. The Pentagon has refused for weeks to even estimate how many of these fighters are still in the fight, or even the number currently being trained. Austin confirmed that the Defense Department is reviewing the program amid reports it will be scaled back in the wake of these setbacks.