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CENTCOM’s Austin Sees Islamic State Influence Spreading, Russian Campaign in Syria ‘Irresponsible’

ISIS2 (1)When asked Tuesday whether the United States was on the 10-yard line, the analogy used in 2010 to describe the coalition’s efforts to succeed in Iraq, the top general in Central Command said, “Clearly we’re in a different game”—with the rise of the Islamic State.

Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Army Gen. Lloyd Austin III said the Islamic State, which controls portions of Iraq and Syria and sees its influence spreading into North Africa and South Asia, poses the greatest immediate threat to the United States and its allies and partners.

That opinion was seconded during the hearing by Army Gen. Joseph Votel, commander of Special Operations Command, who has been nominated to succeed Austin, who is retiring.

The mid- and long-term threat in the region remains Iran, both said.

“We are defeating the enemy in Iraq and Syria,” Austin said.

The “Iraqis will take back Mosul [the country’s second largest city], and we will work with Syrian indigenous forces” in re-taking Raqqa, the Islamic State’s proclaimed capital, Austin said.

So far, the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government has enlisted 15,000 Sunnis to join the fight against the Islamic State. Despite hard-liners’ resistance to arming the Sunnis, they have “proven they are reliable,” he said.

He advised against “going down that path” [of relying on Shiia militias] in re-taking Mosul, a Sunni city. If the United States and the Baghdad government do, “We will be making a significant mistake.” When asked whether the government agrees with this approach, he said, “I think they do”—on the need to work together with the Sunnis on holding, providing humanitarian assistance and re-building after the fighting ceases.

Austin said that to re-take either city will “require some additional capabilities” from the United States going to the indigenous forces, such as air support, logistics, intelligence and more. He did not say that he recommended an increase of American forces to meet that mission.

About 3,700 United States soldiers are in Iraq on a train-and-assist mission. Another 200 special forces have been sent to Iraq to conduct operations against the Islamic State.

In Syria, Votel said, Kurds make up 80 percent of the force fighting the Islamic State. Austin said he has sought permission to recruit more Arabs, who will concentrate on fighting the Islamic State rather than the Russian- and Iranian-backed regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

Austin said this new recruiting effort among Syrian Sunnis will differ from the earlier one in that it will train a smaller number of the fighters in specific skills to return them quickly to combat.

The Russian involvement in Syria “made a very complicated problem even more complicated,” where they, the Iranians, Hezbollah, the regime, moderate opposition forces, and the Islamic State all are engaged in combat, he said.

Austin said while the Russian and Iranian engagement has “emboldened the regime” for now, the long-term impact probably will work against Moscow as the Sunnis in the region become more alienated because of its ties with Tehran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah. He noted that the Gulf Cooperation Council, made up of Sunni states, increased its military buys to counter increased Russian arms sales to Shiite Iran.

He called the Russian bombing campaign, largely against anti-regime forces rather than the Islamic State, “irresponsible.”

On how the new Iranian parliament will affect Tehran’s future actions, Austin said it “was too early to tell.” He asked rhetorically, “Are they really moderate or just another flavor” of extremism?

“There were some setbacks” in taking on the Taliban in Afghanistan in the past year, Austin said due in part to new national and provincial leadership and security forces holding to outdated tactics. Using Helmand Province as an example, he said, the Afghans “are moving out and making corrections,” adjusting its footprint. That kind of change “allows them to project combat power.”

He said United States forces are working with Afghan special forces in countering the Islamic State in the eastern part of the country on “the best means to go after those threats.” Votel said some of the increased military activity in the east comes from Pakistan’s push to eliminate terrorist threats on its soil.

Austin said in light of Taliban gains “a review of the [size of the United States force] plan is in order.”

The commander of Africa Command told the panel Libya was “a failed state” that would take 10 years to re-establish as a secure and stable nation even if the recent accord between the two regimes claiming to be its government held.

Army Gen. David Rodriguez said the United States, as part of that international community, has to do more” to help Libya come together. He identified the area around the city of Sirt—about halfway between Tripoli and Benghazi—as being under Islamic State control.

In surveying the command’s security challenges, he said even with the recent successful air strikes against an al Shabaab camp in Somalia the terrorist group remains a threat in East Africa, as does Boko Haram in the western part of the continent.