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Armed Services Committee to Austin: Claims of war progress 'divorced from reality'

Army Gen. Lloyd Austin III, commander of U.S. Central Command, listens to a question during a Senate Committee on Armed Services hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2015.

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By TRAVIS J. TRITTEN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 16, 2015

WASHINGTON — The commander of U.S. Central Command told the Senate on Wednesday that only a handful of U.S.-trained Syrian rebels remain in the fight against the Islamic State — drawing harsh criticism from lawmakers who called the program a “total failure.”

Armed Services Committee members took issue with Gen. Lloyd Austin’s claims that the U.S. was making progress, with lawmakers challenging what they said were overly optimistic war assessments from Austin and Christine Wormuth, the Defense Department’s undersecretary for policy.

“It is a small number,” Austin said when questioned about the Syrian fighters, acknowledging a “slow start” to the troubled program that is almost a year old. “The ones that are in the fight, we are talking four or five.”

In July, Defense Secretary Ash Carter raised concerns in Congress when he acknowledged that only 60 fighters had been trained since the $500 million program was approved in December. Since then, most of those fighters have been killed or captured after entering the battle in Syria.

Despite slow movement at the tactical level, Austin testified that the Islamic State’s “overall capability has been disrupted” and the U.S. air campaign over the past year has been “extraordinarily effective” against the militants.

He said the train-and-equip program is just one piece of the U.S. strategy in Iraq and Syria.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said the program is not working because it is part of a larger strategy that depends on local forces in Iraq and Syria that cannot organize well.

“We have to acknowledge this is a total failure. It is just a failure and I wish it weren’t so but that is the fact,” Sessions said. “It is way past time to react to that failure.”

The Senate hearing came amid increasing concerns over a stalemate against the militant group and revelations that the DOD inspector general has opened an investigation after dozens of intelligence analysts claimed that Central Command manipulated assessments to provide a more positive impression of progress in the war.

Austin said that he would not comment about the ongoing IG investigation. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said that the U.S. war effort has reached a stalemate, quoting words by the outgoing and incoming joint chiefs chairmans, and that there is a disconnect between Austin’s and Wormuth’s testimony and other military leaders and experts who have painted a grimmer picture.

“I’ve never seen a hearing that is as divorced from the reality of every outside expert,” McCain said.

tritten.travis@stripes.com
Twitter: @Travis_Tritten
 

John McCain, R-Ariz., Chairman of the Senate Committee on Armed Services, addresses Pentagon witnesses during a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2015.
CARLOS BONGIOANNI/STARS AND STRIPES

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