Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said Tuesday that only 60 so-called "moderate" Syrian rebels were currently being trained by the U.S. in the $500 million program that had been slated to put 3,000 fighters into the field against ISIS by the end of this year.
Carter told the Senate Armed Services Committee that he regretted disclosing that the number was so low but "I wanted to tell the truth. The number 60, as you all recognize, is not an impressive number. The number is much smaller than we hoped for at this point."
The $500 million Syrian training program authorized by Congress was intended to train and equip up to 5,400 fighters annually, with about 3,000 projected to be ready by the end of this year.
Cater said that Army Maj. Gen. Michael Nagata of U.S. Central Command, who is leading the Syrian training program, had about 7,000 potential recruits identified but "It's obviously going to take time, obviously" to vet and prepare them.
SASC Chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who earlier gave a scathing critique of the Obama administration's entire approach to the campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), said that "given the poor numbers of recruited and trained Syrian fighters thus far, I am doubtful we can achieve our goal of training a few thousand this year."
"I got to tell you that after four years, Mr. Secretary, that is not a very impressive number," said McCain.
He suggested that the recruiting effort was failing because the U.S. has yet to tell the Syrian rebels whether the U.S. would protect them from attack by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
McCain asked: "Is that fair to these young men to say we are sending you in to fight ISIS only, and by the way, we will decide on the policy whether to defend you if you are barrel bombed?"
Carter and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, who also testified at the hearing, said that the U.S. training program for Iraqis was also falling far short of its goals.
About 8,800 have been trained for the Iraqi Security Force (ISF), and another 2,000 for counter-terrorism activities, against projections that 24,000 would be fielded by the end of this year, Carter said.
The hearing marked what was likely to be the last Congressional testimony by Dempsey, who will retire in October. On Thursday, the committee will hold a confirmation hearing for Dempsey's designated successor, Marine Commandant Gen. Joseph Dunford.
The hearing also offered McCain and Dempsey what was probably their last opportunity to renew their long-standing feud over tactics, strategy, readiness and budgets going back years. Their disputes reached the point two years ago where McCain put a temporary hold on Dempsey's re-nomination as JCS Chairman.
McCain and Dempsey again tossed barbs at each other, but only indirectly under questioning from other senators.
In response to questions from Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., Dempsey took issue with McCain's call for the deployment of U.S. Joint Tactical Air Controllers (JTACs) on the front lines with Iraqi troops to call in airstrikes.
"I have not recommended it" Dempsey said. The deployment of JTACs was "not a silver bullet. The silver bullet is getting the Iraqis to fight" and fostering a genuinely non-sectarian government in Baghdad, Dempsey said.
McCain interjected during questioning by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., to say "I can't help but mention" that "we had won" in Iraq before the U.S. troop withdrawal backed by Dempsey and the Obama administration. To deny that was to be "intellectually dishonest," McCain said.
At that point, Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., the committee's ranking Democrat, also interjected to say that former President George W. Bush "signed an agreement to withdraw our forces" before Reed was cut off by McCain, who threw the questioning to another senator.
In his opening statement, Carter contradicted charges by McCain and others that the Obama administration lacked a coherent strategy for defeating ISIS.
"The administration's strategy to achieve that objective -- as the Joint Chiefs' doctrinal definition of strategy puts it -- integrates all our nation's strengths and instruments of power," Carter said.
"The first, and arguably most critical line of effort, is the political one, which is led by the State Department. This line involves building more effective, inclusive, and multi-sectarian governance in Iraq," Carter said.
In his own opening statement, McCain said "The reality today is that ISIL (another acronym for ISIS) continues to gain territory in Iraq and Syria, while expanding its influence and presence across the Middle East, Africa, and Central Asia."
"There is no responsible ground force in either Iraq or Syria that is both willing and able to take territory away from ISIL and hold it, and none of our current training efforts of moderate Syrians, Sunni tribes, or Iraqi Security Forces are as yet capable of producing such a ground force," McCain said.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at email@example.com