U.S. Central Command's top officer said Thursday he is not ready to recommend ground combat troops in the fight against Islamic State of Syria and Iraq (ISIS) militants, but he's not afraid to make the recommendation if it's required.
Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, who led the last U.S. forces to leave Iraq, placed blame on the previous Iraq government led by Nouri al-Maliki for the growth in power of ISIS. He said the Iraqi army stopped training and maintaining its equipment bought by U.S. taxpayers once U.S. forces left in 2011.
The Shia-led government abandoned the Sunnis leaving the mostly-Sunni Iraqi troops stationed up north nothing to fight for when ISIS units invaded their towns, Austin said. However, the change of leadership in the Iraq government has offered the Army four-star general new confidence in rebuilding the Iraq military.
Austin spoke at the Atlantic Council, a Washington D.C.-based think tank, a day before he will meet with Congressional leaders to discuss the fight with ISIS. Former Sen. John Warner was in attendance and asked Austin how he would justify sending troops back to Iraq after seeing the performance of the Iraqi military in the face of ISIS aggression.
Austin explained that the U.S. has seen progress from Iraq Security Forces bolstered by the airstrikes executed by U.S. and coalition warplanes. The airstrikes have left ISIS militants afraid to congregate in large groups for fear of being targeted, Austin said.
U.S. officials have also found that ISIS leaders are struggling to communicate amongst themselves. Austin said ISIS militants worry that any digital conversation is being monitored by the U.S. and coalition forces.
The CentCom commander estimated that ISIS has between 9,000 and 17,000 "core fighters.”
He showed frustration when asked about Turkey's refusal to allow U.S. fighter planes to fly missions from Turkish bases although he said the mission can be accomplished without their support.
Reports have surfaced that ISIS leaders are trying to fly fighter jets against coalition war planes. Austin explained that he did not view an ISIS air force as a "significant threat,” although he said he knew plenty of American pilots who would be intrigued to fly against ISIS fighter jets.
The CentCom commander said the ISIS leadership owned a powerful grasp of social media and propaganda that has allowed the terrorist group to earn money and recruit members.
Austin warned that this ability has made it even more prudent for U.S. pilots to avoid civilian casualties. He said that's always been a top priority, but it's even more important now.
Austin explained that the U.S. has chosen to focus most of its efforts on defeating ISIS in Iraq versus Syria because of the ability to work with the Iraqi Security Forces. Iraqi ground troops were necessary in order to fight ISIS units, Austin said.
However, the U.S. continued to execute airstrikes in Syria to attack ISIS leaders as well as members of the Khorasan Group. Austin said he approved strikes last night against Khorasan leaders.
He would not deny that those strikes were targeting French bomb-maker David Drugeon. Austin said the U.S. was still assessing if those airstrikes had killed Drugeon.
-- Michael Hoffman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org