A few defense analysts including former military officers called for as many as 20,000 U.S. ground troops to be deployed to Iraq to combat Islamic militants gaining ground in the country.
Frederick Kagan, one of the architects of the Bush-era troop surge in Iraq and a former professor of military history at West Point, was among those who cited the figure on Thursday during a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee on U.S. policy in Iraq and Syria.
"We need to have a total of 15,000 to 20,000 U.S. troops in Iraq in order to provide the necessary enablers, advisers and so forth," said Kagan, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. "Anything less than that is simply unserious."
Kagan was invited to speak by Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, the committee's chairman and frequent critic of the Obama administration's strategy in the Middle East. He spoke alongside John Keane, a retired Army general and former vice chief of staff; Derek Harvey, a University of South Florida professor and a retired Army colonel; and Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.
Katulis was the lone member of the panel who questioned the idea of sending more American troops to Iraq and said Washington should instead hold Baghdad accountable on forming a more inclusive government.
"At this stunning moment -- what happened in Ramadi, I think, should shock everybody -- we should keep an eye on these measures of what we need to do to help our Iraqi partners on the security front, but understand what we have learned over the last 10 years-plus is that the political dynamics are terribly important."
The hearing came the same week ISIS fighters took control of the Iraqi city of Ramadi west of Baghdad and the historic Syrian city of Palmrya. Just three months ago, Pentagon officials unveiled a plan for U.S. and Iraqi forces to repel the al-Qaeda militants from the northern city of Mosul.
Kagan said that plan has been "completely derailed."
"I do not believe that there is any reasonable prospect that it will be possible to retake Mosul this year," he said. "I think the fight for Ramadi will be hard enough. I think that these operations in and around Ramadi demonstrate that the Iraqi security forces are current levels of U.S. support are not capable of defending even their territory against determined ISIS attack, let alone clearing a major ISIS safe haven."
Harvey joined Kagan in pressing for deploying more U.S. troops to the country.
"We're going to need, in my judgment, about 15,000 or more enhancement of U.S. force structure in theater," he said. "We need probably two brigades. We need a mixed aviation brigade. You need some artillery. You need enhanced direct action SOF operational capabilities," he added, referring to special operations forces. "Direct action brings you the intelligence, which you then share and then allows you to go after those networks."
Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Nebraska, asked Harvey whether he was referring to deploying more U.S. service members to engage in direct combat. "Sir, so just to be clear, you are stating that you believe 15,000 additional troops and aviation assets to directly engage ISIS as a combat?" she said.
"No," Harvey said. "I want them to be there to provide the enablers, support for the Iraqi security forces, for direct action of the special operations forces for indirect fires, advisers embedded with Iraqi security forces or Ministry of Interior elements in a way that gets us on the ground and can bring in our capabilities.
He added, "I'm not advising that we put troops on the ground in combat outposts in Ramadi, clearing streets and communities and neighborhoods in a direct action way. But we need to be out there enabling and providing support and protection for Sunni area tribal militias … It's hard to have influence if you don't skin in the game."
Kagan agreed, saying U.S. troops deployed on a mission to train, advise and assist Iraqi forces will be in harm's way, but not engaged in the type of combat they were in recent years.
"We're not anticipating putting American brigades in Ramadi and having them clear house to house the way we had done previously," he said.
President Obama last summer ordered airstrikes against ISIS targets in Iraq and later Syria. The al-Qaeda-linked terrorist group responded by circulating videos depicting the executions of prisoners, including the beheading of American aid worker and former Army Ranger Peter Kassig and others.
Obama responded by authorizing the deployment of American service members back to Iraq. As of Feb. 18, the U.S. had about 2,600 troops in the country, with most serving as advisers to Iraqi and Kurdish forces in Baghdad and Irbil.
Keane said more U.S. troops are needed, especially advisers serving as forward air controllers to direct air power and attack helicopters, as well as special operations forces.
"The war in Iraq is largely close combat, urban warfare, which demands the bombs be guided from our airplanes to the ground by people on the ground," he said. "Seventy-five percent of the sorties that we're currently running with our attack aircraft come back without dropping bombs, mostly because they cannot acquire the target or properly identify the target."
Keane added that special operation forces should be deployed regularly into Iraq and Syria to attack ISIS leaders and protect critical infrastructure.
During the surge of U.S. troops into Iraq in 2007 and similar deployment of manpower in Afghanistan in 2010, "we averaged somewhere between eight to 10 of these operations a night," he said. "In fact, when the UBL raid was taking place in Pakistan, there were nine of these operations going on in Afghanistan that very night," he added, referring to the covert U.S. raid into Pakistan in 2011 to capture al-Qaeda mastermind Osama bin Laden.
This story was updated to correct the name of the university in the fourth paragraph.
-- Brendan McGarry can be reached at email@example.com