Major Deployments to Syria, Afghanistan Unlikely: Thornberry

In this March 18, 2015, file photo, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington.  (AP Photo/Molly Riley, File)
In this March 18, 2015, file photo, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Molly Riley, File)

The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee said Thursday he doesn't expect the administration to order a major push of ground troops into Syria, or a new buildup of combat forces in Afghanistan, even though both possibilities have been publicly discussed in recent weeks.

Speaking to reporters on Capitol Hill, Rep. Mac Thornberry, a Republican from Texas, said he believes the advise-and-assist role that U.S. troops are currently executing in Syria as they help local forces prosecute a fight against the Islamic State is the correct one.

"I do not see the United States putting a large ground force in, to take and occupy territory in Syria," he said in response to a question. "I do believe this assist role is the right one for us there. Of course, having said that, that's a long way from saying I see the solution for Syria."

He added that he has concerns about Syria's future as an "ungoverned space" and potential base of operations for terrorist groups including the Islamic State and al-Qaida. Even if the coalition fight against ISIS goes well in Iraq and Syria, he said, the threat would not disappear entirely.

This week, reports surfaced that a plan being drafted by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to accelerate the fight against ISIS will include options to send a U.S. ground force into Syria, in addition to the roughly 500 troops currently filling an advise-and-assist role in the country.

It is unclear how many troops have been recommended for such a prospective ground offensive.

It's also rumored that President Donald Trump is considering sending more troops into Afghanistan, more than two years after the formal conclusion of ground combat operations in that country.

The Wall Street Journal reported in late January that Trump had mentioned in a call to Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani that he would mull sending additional troops in to assist with security.

And the commander of all coalition troops in Afghanistan, Army Gen. John Nicholson, told Congress last week that he needs several thousand more to properly execute the ongoing training and advisory mission he oversees. Currently, some 8,400 U.S. troops are deployed to Afghanistan.

Thornberry said he doesn't believe the country will see a "big buildup of huge numbers of combat troops" returning to Afghanistan, but said he opposes the strict caps on troop presence that have forced the military to pursue workarounds, such as leaving unit mechanics home and hiring expensive contractors in theater.

"If we can just get rid of the political artificiality and say, 'OK, this is what we're doing in Afghanistan. We're trying to conduct counterterrorism operations and advise and assist the Afghan forces. This is what we think it will take. And then do that, and be up front about it, and not play these political games, we'll be more efficient with our dollars, but we'll also be more effective," Thornberry said.

Deployments to Syria and Afghanistan and elsewhere in support of the counter-terrorism fight could happen without the approval of Congress, thanks to the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, or AUMF, which gave infamously broad powers to the executive branch to pursue the war on terror.

Thornberry, who introduced two previous efforts to redraft the AUMF, said he still believes a new version is needed, but could not say when that might happen.

"I think not only from a legal standpoint, but to show the men and women who are in Syria and Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere that the country stands behind their efforts," he said. "I think we have somewhat of a moral obligation to do that."

-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at@HopeSeck.

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