- The Washington Times
Monday, June 15, 2015

Senators said Monday prohibiting American boots on the ground in the fight against the Islamic State should be part of this year’s debate on the defense policy bill.

Sen. Chris Murphy, Connecticut Democrat, introduced an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would prohibit the use of large scale ground troops with a few exceptions, including special operations missions to nab high value targets and forward ground controllers to call in close air support.

“I think it sends a message that we’ve learned from our mistakes and that we are going to engage in a strategy that works, not just in the short term, but in the long term,” Mr. Murphy told reporters on Monday. “There is nothing about the last 15 years in Iraq that’s an advertisement for the large-scale deployment of ground troops.”

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His amendment is in line with promises President Obama has made to limit the use of U.S. ground troops, but could put restrictions on the next president, especially if a GOP hawk looking to expand U.S. involvement is elected, Mr. Murphy said. The amendment is supported by senators on both sides of the aisle, including Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican and candidate for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination.

Mr. Murphy’s call for limiting U.S. involvement in the fight comes just days after the Washington Post reported that even military leaders — typically the ones asking for more firepower in battle — are hesitant to get more aggressive to the Middle East after more than a decade of fighting there has shown how difficult it is to succeed.

Top military officials are reluctant to commit more American lives to a conflict where Iraqis seem unwilling or unable to step up and defend themselves and have acted as “voices of caution” against expanding U.S. ground involvement, the Post article said.

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Hawks on Capitol Hill have been critical of the president’s strategy to fight the Islamic State, saying incremental increases, like last week’s announcement sending 450 more U.S. advisers to Iraq, are not enough to defeat the Islamic State. They have called for the U.S. to send more troops into combat, especially joint terminal attack controllers to call in air strikes from the ground, making close air support more effective.

It’s unclear if these critics, including Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, would change their recommendations for more military action if the desire to stay out of combat is coming from the military itself, not the administration.

Mr. Murphy said he hopes to get a vote on his amendment while the Senate considers the annual defense policy bill this week, but said that will be difficult in the debate lead by Mr. McCain, who supports sending more U.S. ground forces to Iraq. If it’s not possible, Mr. Murphy said he will also introduce the amendment during debate on the defense appropriations bill and an authorization for the use of military force, if the Senate or Senate Foreign Relations Committee take up the war bill.

Only two amendment votes are scheduled for the defense policy bill so far: one that would change the military justice system for sexual assault cases and one to give the president the authority to directly arm Kurdish peshmerga forces. Both votes are expected Tuesday afternoon.

The amendment to arm the Kurdish forces in the fight against the Islamic State comes from Sen. Joni Ernst, Iowa Republican and an Iraq veteran. The amendment would authorize, but not require, the president to go around the Iraqi central government to provide equipment to the Kurds, including everything from ant-tank weaponry and armored vehicles to communications equipment and body armor.

The administration has declined so far to go around the Shiite Iraqi government to arm Kurdish or Sunni fighters. Analysts say doing so would undermine the administration’s decadelong commitment to building up the central government.

The Senate is also slated to vote Tuesday on an amendment from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, New York Democrat, that would remove the prosecution of sexual assault cases from the military chain of command in an effort to make the system more fair to both survivors and their alleged attackers. Mrs. Gillibrand previously tried to pass the changes as part of the annual defense bill in 2013, but lawmakers opted to pass a series of less radical changes instead, promising to come back to the issue if they saw no progress.

Mrs. Gillibrand said Defense Department statistics show the problem of retaliation for reporting sexual assaults has not improved, and as a result, service members are reluctant to come forward.

“Over the last few years, Congress has forced the military to make incremental changes to address the crisis of sexual assault and after two decades of complete failure, and lip service to ‘zero tolerance’ — the military now says, essentially, ‘Trust us this time, we got it,’” Mrs. Gillibrand said last week on the Senate floor.

“Enough is enough with the spin, with the excuses, and with the promises. We must do the right thing and act,” she continued.

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