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Top Pentagon Officials Defend Islamic State Strategy Before Lawmakers


The Pentagon's two top officials went to Capitol Hill today to defend President Obama's strategy to defeat the self-proclaimed Islamic State. Republican lawmakers say it's not working. They want to do something the president has refused to do - send in combat troops. NPR's Tom Bowman has more.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hundreds of American military trainers are working in Iraq building up a sagging Iraqi army. And from the sky, the American-led air coalition has launched some 5,000 airstrikes. To Sen. John McCain, the Republican chairman of the Armed Services Committee, those numbers are almost meaningless. He says ISIS is still on the march and controlling wide swathes of both Iraq and Syria.


JOHN MCCAIN: That suggests we are not winning. And when you're not winning in war, you are losing.

BOWMAN: So McCain, a former combat pilot in Vietnam, told Defense Secretary Ash Carter he should send in some combat troops who specialize in helping pilots find targets - ground air controllers.


MCCAIN: Any experienced pilot will tell you that if you have a forward air controller on the ground to identify those targets, then the number of targets hit is dramatically increased.

ASH CARTER: And so I'm just saying we don't rule that out and our strategy doesn't rule that out...

MCCAIN: You never rule it out. It hasn't happened.

BOWMAN: It hasn't happened because President Obama has said there'll be no combat troops - what he calls boots on the ground. Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions pressed reluctant Joint Chiefs Chairman, Gen. Martin Dempsey, on that point, suggesting Green Berets could help Iraqi troops.


JEFF SESSIONS: You're saying that that would not make a positive impact on their morale and their capabilities to actually win?

BOWMAN: Dempsey said he would only recommend such combat advisors in limited circumstances, where it could have a big impact.


MARTIN DEMPSEY: We should wait until we see a strategic opportunity to do that.

BOWMAN: But Gen. Dempsey said that neither American air controllers nor Special Forces can defeat ISIS. The silver bullet, he said, is getting the Iraqis to fight. Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.