WASHINGTON — Republicans and Democrats on Wednesday complained that the White House's response to the Islamic State has been lackluster and peppered an Obama administration official with questions about why moderate forces were not being trained more quickly to stem the extremist militants' march across Iraq and Syria.
Brett McGurk, deputy special presidential envoy to the coalition to counter IS, defended the administration's response and outlined gains against militants in both nations. But in testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, McGurk acknowledged that the international campaign against IS is still in its "earliest phases."
"Efforts to halt ISIL's advance have been successful, but the rollback phase will be longer, and progress is likely to be uneven," McGurk said, referring to IS, which also uses the acronyms ISIS.
Rep. Ed Royce, the committee chairman, said the White House is "still dithering." He said IS still controls essentially the same amount of territory it did in the summer and U.S.-backed groups in Syria still do not have the support they need to fight the extremists — and defend themselves from bombs dropped by Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces.
"These Syrian groups have suffered from dire ammunition shortages in the last several weeks," said Royce, R-Calif. "We had meetings with a representative recently. They're out of ammunition."
"In Iraq, the Kurdish peshmerga (fighters) remain the most effective fighting force against ISIS but the administration and Baghdad have refused thus far to supply them with anything more than light weapons as they go up against ISIS' tanks and artillery and Humvees and other heavy weapons," Royce said.
McGurk said that training moderate forces to fight against IS in Syria was set to begin in March and that the plan is to train 5,000 fighters a year. That prompted outrage from Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas.
"What are we doing in Syria right now?" Poe asked. "People are dying and the cavalry is not showing up until March 2106."
Highlighting progress in Iraq, McGurk said the Iraqi government is building a smaller national army and charging local police and national guard units based in provinces to provide day-to-day security. While he said it will take time to develop the new security network, it is designed to deny space to any unauthorized armed groups, including IS. He said the new government also is working on governmental reform, national reconciliation and economic and social reconstruction.
McGurk said seven countries — France, Britain, Belgium, The Netherlands, Canada, Australia and Denmark — have flown more than 600 precision airstrikes over Iraq, helping the Iraqi government and Kurdish forces hold, take back territory and degrade IS' ability to move. "The main ISIL offensive has been halted and is now being rolled back," he said.
He said U.S. and partner nations have conducted more than 500 airstrikes against IS targets in Syria, mostly against the IS offensive around the town of Kobani. "As of today, that assault has failed and has resulted in nearly 1,000 ISIL fighters killed, including many leaders," he said.
Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, the top Democrat on the panel, agreed that progress is being made, but said: "We are nowhere near to stamping out this threat."