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Examining U.S. Anti-ISIS Strategy


The self-declared Islamic State beheads and executes innocent people and boasts about it in grisly videos. It's captured thousands of square miles of territory in Iraq, Libya and Syria, including two Iraqi provincial capitals. President Obama announced this week the U.S. will send about 450 more U.S. advisers to help Iraqi soldiers in their fight against ISIS. Republican Congressman Mac Thornberry of Texas is chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. He joins us from the capital. Thanks so much for being with us, Congressman.


SIMON: Four-hundred-fifty advisers - a good step, enough?

THORNBERRY: It's OK as far as it goes. It's clearly not enough. We already have about 3,100 Americans there. And ISIS has momentum, and this is not going to change that, I think.

SIMON: Congressman, what do you say to, I think, a lot of Americans, including some Republicans who might be listening to this interview, who say America doesn't have a good history of sending troops to Iraq? And they're worried about sending any more.

THORNBERRY: Yeah, I worry about that, too. Clearly, the preferred option is for the Iraqis themselves to provide security for their own country. They have not been very successful at doing that so far. And so we've sent folks back into Iraq after having left there prematurely, in my view. But when we send them back, we only allow them to train Iraqis inside the bases. We do not allow the advisers to go out into the field with them.

SIMON: Should the U.S. be doing more than advising? Should there be forward air controllers? Should there be fill-in-the-blank?

THORNBERRY: Yes, and I have spent a fair amount of time talking to people over the last decade or so who have been involved in this training and advising mission. Every one them says that it's much more effective if they can go into the field with those they train and advise - not to fight, but just to help in those battlefield situations for them to be more effective. It's kind of like a basketball coach who can never leave the locker room, and we don't do that. I also believe that we are far too restrictive on the air campaign. We tie our own hands. And even more so than the number of people we send to Iraq, it's how we limit the effectiveness of our people that we send there that concerns me.

SIMON: A number of people, Republicans in particular, have criticized President Obama for not having a strategy, for saying openly the strategy is developing. You're head of the Armed Services Committee. Your party controls Congress. Do you have a strategy?

THORNBERRY: I don't have all the answers for this very complex situation. I will say I don't think you can ever have a strategy that comes from Congress, made up of 535 individuals. Now, Congress can play a role. And as a matter fact, we're going to have next week, in front of our committee, the secretary of defense, the chairman of the joint chiefs, to talk about Mideast strategy - not just against ISIS, but how all the pieces fit together with Iran and Yemen and the growing ISIS threat and the al-Qaida threat that has not gone away. But bottom line is there is no substitute for presidential leadership.

SIMON: And congressman, what would you say to those Americans who think that the wisest U.S. strategy would be to do nothing, that the Middle East is going through an upheaval and let them work it out rather than have more Americans die for interests which are difficult to secure, even identify in any case?

THORNBERRY: Because they can't work it out. They won't work it out. And the fight comes to us whether we want it to or not. To me, that's a primary lesson of 9/11. We were not involved in any of these places in the Middle East when 9/11 occurred. And if anything, the ISIS approach to things is even more deadly, more cruel and brutal than al-Qaida's. And I don't think most Americans believe that if we just come home, they would not bother us anymore.

SIMON: Congressman Mac Thornberry of Texas, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. Thanks for being with us, Sir.

THORNBERRY: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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