Confronting ISIS — More or Less

Yesterday I watched a disturbing news report on TV. It discussed a news conference by Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and included relevant video clips. The reporter started off indignant about what he was hearing but then dissolved into helpless laughter. Truly, what Carter was saying sounded ludicrous although he kept a perfectly straight face throughout.

Remember our plan for dealing with ISIS in Syria? Last June, the President asked Congress for $500M to arm and train “reliable” Syrian dissidents to combat ISIS. After much grunting and groaning, this effort has given birth to its first training group. When they are ready, this formidable force will consist of 90 fighters. Let me repeat that number, 90! And probably not all would actually be fighters. In a comparable U.S. force, not more than half would be at the pointy end of the spear. Carter went on to say that another such group should enter training within a month.


At this rate and force size, given attrition and likely desertions in the field, I doubt that we could maintain a constant fighting force much above a few hundred at most.  And that assumes that they actually fight rather than run, a possibility not easily dismissed given our experience in Iraq. Just for comparison, while estimates vary wildly, it is generally believed that 50-100 foreign fighters join ISIS every day. They will swat this dissident brigade off like they do the ubiquitous sand flies of the Syrian desert.

To be fair, I don’t much like any of the alternatives, but pretending that this holds real promise is a joke — but not a very amusing one. As an aside, listening to Secretary Carter present his case reinforced an impression I got from his confirmation hearings. Based on his curriculum vitae he is a very smart and accomplished man, but he is in dire need of a good speech coach.