- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 3, 2015

President Obama’s nominee for defense secretary will tell Congress on Wednesday that he is wary of Islamic State militants trying to establish a foothold in Afghanistan and leery of foreign fighters that are spilling out of North Africa to support the extremist group.

Proposed Pentagon chief Ashton Carter is already signaling to lawmakers that instability in such countries as Libya and Yemen may require additional counterterrorism operations similar to the ones being conducted by the U.S. military on the Pakistan and Afghanistan border.

“I believe foreign fighters pose a threat to the U.S., and that this threat is exacerbated by the ongoing political and security instability in Libya,” Mr. Carter said in written comments to the Senate Armed Services Committee, obtained by The Washington Times. “If confirmed, I will focus attention on the foreign fighter flow as the department works with regional partners in North Africa to address the challenge posed by the terrorist safe haven in Libya and broader counterterrorism issues.”

How to stamp out terrorist safe havens and camps that train Islamic extremists in the Middle East and North Africa are high on the list of concerns lawmakers want Mr. Carter to address as he moves toward replacing outgoing Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel.

Mr. Carter would be the president’s fourth Defense secretary in just over six years in office.

Congress is pushing Mr. Carter to explain how the Defense Department’s pursuit of terrorists in the region will change under his watch. On Tuesday, Islamic State militants touted the murder of a Jordanian pilot they captured after he crashed his jet during a U.S.-led military operation over Syria.

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The former deputy defense secretary’s confirmation is considered likely. He has the esteem of both Democratic and Republican senators, even those in the GOP who took shots at Mr. Hagel’s record during his confirmation hearing two years ago.

Instead, analysts expect Mr. Carter’s hearing to be a forum on Mr. Obama and what Republicans deem to be his foreign policy failures on which they blame the rise of the Islamic State.

The Obama administration still doesn’t have a cohesive strategic approach for how to win the war against Islamic State militants operating in Syria, said Michael O’Hanlon, a national security and defense policy analyst at The Brookings Institution.

Rear Adm. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, revealed to reporters during a Jan. 23 briefing that the U.S. military had yet to sign up any of the rebels for a U.S.-led training program that is expected to kick off in Saudi Arabia this spring. That training process is expected to take about eight months, which means the rebels will not participate in the fighting until 2016.

Aside from asking the defense secretary nominee to explain how he plans to handle increasing fears of the Islamic State, Congress also wants reassurance he will tackle a rift with Pakistan, which has been working with the U.S. to quash terrorists along its border with Afghanistan.

In his written response to lawmakers, Mr. Carter stated that he plans to hold Pakistan accountable for targeting all terrorists operating within its borders, not just the ones with the potential to undermine that nation’s own stability.

“I will ensure that the Department holds Pakistan to this pledge, and works against actors who are exploiting Pakistani territory to destabilize the region,” Mr. Carter said.

Other issues Mr. Carter will have to discuss are his plans to trim the cumbersome defense budget and reform the way that the military buys its weaponry — a topic of keen interest to Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a budget hawk who has consistently made public his dismay about the cost of weapons programs.

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