Former senior U.S. military leaders outlined the threat that violent Islamist extremists pose and put it into a larger global security context at a Tuesday hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee on global threats.
Gen. John Keane—a former vice chief of staff of the Army—recognized the split between the radical Shi’ia branch of Islam and the role Iran plays not only in the Middle East but beyond, using “proxies to attack the United States”—such as Hezbollah did in Lebanon or its sectarian militias did in Iraq—while developing its own nuclear and long-range missile capabilities and radical Sunnis.
The radical Sunnis, through al Qaeda and its affiliates, “exceed Iran” in attracting recruits and threatening Europe and North America. He cited the recent attack in Paris at satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish supermarket as an example of radical Sunni reach outside of the Middle East.
“We sure as hell are opinionated” as witnesses, he said. “[But] it is unmistakable that our policies have failed” in rolling back the Islamic State (sometimes called the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS or ISIL) or in using drones to attack suspected terrorist targets in Yemen and Pakistan. Those actions “guarantee we will be incrementally engaged” without an overall strategy, Keane said.
Retired Marine Gen. James Mattis, a former Central Command (CENTCOM) commander, described the Middle East “as a region erupting in crisis” and the United States and its allies need to decide whether “political Islam is in our best interest.” Including Afghanistan in his assessment, he asked rhetorically “Are we asking for the same outcome [when the United States pulled its troops] out of Iraq?”
“We can’t have everything,” Adm. William Fallon, who also served as CENTCOM commander, said. “We’ve got to make choices,” he added, noting that it is impossible for the United States to solve the centuries-old divide between Shi’ia and Sunni and the even longer battle between Persians [Iran] and Arabs over control of the region.
Fallon warned against, “the hype about everything that happens with these characters [radical extremists],” characterizing extremists as mostly, “a pick-up band of jihadists.”
Zeroing in on Iraq, Fallon said it is critical that Sunnis there believe they “are getting a fair shake going forward” from the government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. If they believe that, the tribes would be more likely to join the Kurds and largely Shi’ia Iraqi military in fighting ISIS.
“We know ISIS and ‘reconcilable Sunnis’ are on a collision course,” Keane added. He said the Abadi government and its military do not want to wait any longer to retake Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul.
“I don’t know if we will be ready by summer” to assist them with forward air controllers and air strikes, increased intelligence-gathering and sharing, special forces and additional trainers to be with Iraqi front-line forces in an attack on Mosul, Keane said. “We’ve got to have people on the ground with them,” he said. When asked, he put the number at 10,000 in that advise and assist role.
He added that several brigades of ground forces, including coalition troops, should be in place in Kuwait if the attempt to retake the city stalls or fails.
Mattis agreed on embedding forces with the Iraqis. Using forward controllers as an example, “you are seeing a much faster decision process” when they are available for planning and follow-up on a military operation that could keep an enemy off-balance.
Across the Iraqi border, Keane called the situation of the Free Syrian Army “as complex a thing as we have had on our plate” as it tries to battle ISIS with its roots in among Sunnis and the regime with its ties to Shi’ia at the same time. Most coalition nations assisting the Iraqi government have limited air strikes against ISIS to that country. Iran is supporting the Syrian regime with forces and equipment.
On halting Iran’s nuclear program, Fallon reminded the committee that the United State negotiated with the Soviet Union during the Cold War over limiting these weapons. “We didn’t trust them. They didn’t trust us. The key thing is to verify.”
“Rigorous inspection” was the way Mattis described it. He said, “Economic sanctions worked better than I expected” in bringing Iran to the negotiations. Other steps could include a blockade, striking Hezbollah and the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria if talks fail.
Keane said he had “no confidence that the Iranians will not move to undermine” any agreement. “The supreme leader [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] is on a path for a nuclear weapon.”
“The threat has shifted” in Europe, Keane said pointing to the Russian seizure of Crimea, support of separatists in Ukraine and threats to the Baltic States, now members of NATO. “Let’s put some permanent bases there,” closer to the Russian border, and re-look the decision to pull the missile defense system from Eastern Europe.
As for a pivot to Asia and the Pacific, Fallon said the difference is rather small. During the Cold War, the Fleet was about evenly divided between the Atlantic and Pacific and the shift now would allocate 60 percent of the Navy’s 280 ships to the Pacific, a move of 28 ships. But it would be a step to reassure allies and partners in the region and China that the United States was still engaged, he and Mattis said.
When asked about a return to the draft, all said that would not be a good idea, but the growing divide between the 1 percent who serve voluntarily and the American public is “a huge problem,” Fallon said. Mattis said the All-Volunteer Force “has been good for the military [in terms of quality] but bad for the country” [in terms of the divide].
“The force looks like America, and they want to be there,” Keane said.