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U.S. Strategy On ISIS Comes Under Fire At Congressional Hearing


The nation's top military commander said again today that he might ask for more U.S. ground troops in Iraq. General Martin Dempsey testified together with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Capitol Hill. They said the war against Islamic State fighters will not end soon. NPR's David Welna reports that criticism of the military strategy was bipartisan.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: In the seven weeks since Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel last sat before lawmakers defending the U.S. campaign against the group variously known as the Islamic State, ISIS and ISIL, that war has widened to include airstrikes in Syria as well as Iraq. Today, Hagel told the Armed Services panel that effort will be long and difficult and can succeed only with the strong support of Congress.


CHUCK HAGEL: Our campaign against ISIL has made progress. ISIL's advance in parts of Iraq has stalled, and in some cases been reversed by Iraqi, Kurdish and tribal forces supported by U.S. and coalition airstrikes. But ISIL continues to represent a serious threat to American interests - our allies in the Middle East.

WELNA: Still, as both he and President Obama have done before, Hagel promised the U.S. role in the region will remain limited.


HAGEL: U.S. military personnel will not be engaged in a ground combat mission.

WELNA: Some lawmakers say that's foolish. Buck McKeon, the panel's Republican chairman told Hagel a new authorization to fight ISIS that the president's seeking from Congress known as the AUMF had better not include any restrictions against putting U.S. boots on the ground.


CONGRESSMAN BUCK MCKEON: I would offer a warning that should the AUMF proposed by the president contain such limitations, it will be DOA in Congress. I will not support sending our military into harm's way with their arms tied behind their backs.

WELNA: And as he's done before, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Martin Dempsey left a door open to sending U.S. ground forces to fight ISIS. He said Iraqi forces have been doing a better job but may not be skilled enough to seize back, for example, control of the city of Mosul.


GENERAL MARTIN DEMPSEY: I'm not predicting at this point that I would recommend that those forces in Mosul and along the border would need to be accompanied by U.S. forces, but we're certainly considering it.


CONGRESSMAN NIKI TSONGAS: It seems to me the horse is evermore out of the barn.

WELNA: That's Niki Tsongas, a Massachusetts Democrat.


TSONGAS: I am troubled by the recent tasking of an additional 1,500 troops to Iraq and President Obama's statement that he has not ruled out deploying more troops.

WELNA: Republicans attack not just the Obama administration's tactics, but its overall strategy. Here's California's Duncan Hunter.


CONGRESSMAN DUNCAN HUNTER: Where is this going? What is next, and what is the endgame? The Iranians are training more Iraqis than we are. They're getting more influence in Iraq right now. You have no plan for Syria. You don't know what you're going to do with Assad.

WELNA: That's Bashar al-Assad, Syria's president. Republicans say he should be the target, not just ISIS. Secretary Hagel disagreed.


HAGEL: You could change Assad today, and that's not going to change all the dynamics quickly, certainly in Syria. But who are you going to replace Assad with, and what kind of an army would take on ISIL?

WELNA: Hagel asked that Congress approve another $5.6 billion to carry out airstrikes and train local forces to take the fight to ISIS. David Welna, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.
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