It was not until two months ago — as the war against the Islamic State was over a year old — that the Pentagon and the State Department began regular high-level planning meetings to make big decisions on how to defeat the terror army in Iraq and Syria, the nation’s top military officer told Congress on Tuesday.
One such momentous decision was to finally begin striking at the main source of the Islamic State’s financing — the columns of oil trucks heading to the black market — a cash flow that has been ongoing since the U.S. began the air war in August 2014.
Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said top Pentagon leadership and Secretary of State John F. Kerry began the sessions in October.
“We meet about every three or four weeks on specific issues in a campaign,” he told the House Armed Services Committee at a hearing on war strategy that included Defense Secretary Ashton Carter as a witness.
“I think it’s fair to say there was a recognition — Secretary Carter and Secretary Kerry recognized that we weren’t as integrated across the government as we should be,” Gen. Dunford said.
“So about two months ago, we began to meet on a periodic basis to attack specific issues,” he said. “So far, the oil issue is actually an outcome of the first meeting that we had, and the most recent meeting was on foreign fighters because that clearly requires the whole government.”
“Am I satisfied with the level of integration? No. We’re working on that,” he said.
Gen. Dunford’s disclosure came under questioning from Rep. Seth Moulton, Massachusetts Democrat and a former Marine Corps officer and platoon leader who did four tours in the Iraq War. He wondered aloud whether the State Department was helping as much as it could.
The testimony about oil and a flawed interagency process brought complaints from the committee’s newer, more hawkish Republican members who have military combat experience.
Rep. Martha McSally, a former Air Force A-10 pilot and the first woman pilot to fly into combat, recalled air power seminars that called for the maximum strikes possible.
“You identify those centers of gravity or critical capabilities and vulnerabilities, and then you unleash American air power that overwhelmingly goes after them,” the Arizona Republican said. “We’re just now realizing oil trucks are moving. It’s been reported from the very beginning I’m deeply concerned about the lack of using American air power for all it brings to the fight.”
Mr. Carter testified that it was not until recently that the U.S. developed the intelligence to distinguish which trucks were carrying Islamic State oil. With that knowledge, over 400 trucks have been destroyed, he said.
But that raised another question: Why does the Obama administration consider truck drivers not to be enemy combatants? The U.S. gives the drivers a leaflet warning to run from their vehicles before aircraft strike the convoys.
To some lawmakers, putting truck drivers off-limits symbolizes all that is wrong with Mr. Obama’s war strategy, in which so much care is taken to avoid civilian casualties that U.S. jets return to bases, their ordnance still intact.
“They [the drivers] knew they were funding ISIS, and they are not enemy combatants?” Rep. Jim Bridenstine, Oklahoma Republican, told Mr. Cater, who appeared irked by his line of questioning.
“I’m astonished,” said Mr. Bridenstine, a Navy Reserve carrier pilot who has flown the E-2C Hawkeye surveillance plane and the F-18 fighter.
“These were people who were making a buck, so we gave them every opportunity to survive the strike,” the defense secretary said.
Gen. Dunford said the procedure goes this way: two air volleys in front of and behind each convoy, and a leaflet drop warning. Then the trucks are hit.
Mr. Carter generally painted an upbeat war picture. Syrian rebels have taken back territory and are moving toward the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa while the Kurdish peshmerga troops in northern Iraq have defeated the Islamist group, also known as ISIL and ISIS, in several key battles.
“All these efforts have shrunk the ISIL-controlled territory, he said. “We are gathering momentum on the battlefield in Syria and Iraq” as “the U.S. is continuing to accelerate the military campaign against ISIL.”
One important new move is the creation of a “specialized expeditionary targeting force” that will involve putting an unspecified number of U.S. special operations forces into Iraq on a “standing” or permanent basis — boots on the ground.
Its missions in both Iraq and Syria will include raids to capture or kill Islamic State leaders, intelligence gathering and hostage rescue.
“That creates a virtuous cycle of better intelligence, which generates more targets, more raids and more momentum,” Mr. Carter said.
To date, the U.S. has only captured a handful of Islamic State operatives, Gen. Dunford said, adding, “The lack of human intelligence hinders our campaign.
“We want a victory over ISIL that sticks,” Mr. Carter said.
According to Mr. Carter, the new expeditionary force will be “larger” than 50. The U.S. has more than 3,000 troops in Iraq, and President Obama had separately announced some weeks ago that he’d be sending 50 special operations forces to Syria.