More U.S. conventional forces, in addition to the Marines just sent into Syria to set up an artillery firebase, may be needed to support the assault on the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa, a top U.S. commander said Thursday.
Army Gen. Joseph Votel, commander of U.S. Central Command, also said that more U.S. troops -- over and above the 8,500 currently in Afghanistan -- are needed to assist the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces in regaining territory lost to the Taliban.
In testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Votel said he agrees with the assessment of Army Gen. John Nicholson, commander of U.S. Forces-Afghanistan and NATO forces, that the war with the Taliban is at a "stalemate" and a "few thousand" more U.S. troops should be deployed to advise and assist the Afghan forces.
Votel said discussions are underway with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis on a solution. "I do believe it will involve additional [U.S.] forces" and more training for the fledgling Afghan air force, he said.
In Syria, where members of the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit with M777 155mm howitzers have deployed within firing range of Raqqa, Votel said additional U.S. conventional forces are likely to be needed for the aftermath of the eventual assault on the self-proclaimed capital of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
"I think as we move more toward the latter part of these operations into more of the stability and other aspects of the operations, we will see more conventional forces requirements -- perhaps," he said.
Until recently, the approximately 500 U.S. troops in Syria were mostly Special Forces, but Votel said he sees little problem in mixing the special ops troops with conventional forces.
"We have become very comfortable and capable of operating together," said Votel, whose post before CentCom was as commander of U.S. Special Operations Command.
"So, what I have pledged to our commanders and what I expect from them, is for them to ask for the capabilities that they need and then for us to ensure we have the right command and control, the right force protection, the right resources in place to ensure that we can function properly together."
In addition to the Marines setting up the firebase, a small number of troops in Stryker combat vehicles from the Army's 75th Ranger Regiment were sent into the town of Manbij about 70 miles north of Raqqa, where local forces backed by Turkey and elements of the army of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad backed by Russia have converged.
Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican and the committee chairman, warned of the potential for a "train wreck" at Manbij if the Turks carry out repeated threats to attack Syrian Kurdish fighters backed by the U.S.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan considers the Syrian Kurdish YPG, or People's Protection Units, to be a terrorist group linked to separatists in southeastern Turkey.
"Unless something changes, I foresee a train wreck here," McCain said. "I'm not sure that the administration recognizes how seriously" Erdogan views the Kurds as a threat.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.