Congress rejected a bid Wednesday to force President Obama to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq and stop bombing Syria, with a bipartisan coalition in the House saying the fight against the Islamic State is too important to give up on, even without a better strategy or partners on the ground.
The vote came as Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told lawmakers Iraqi forces, whom the U.S. is training and relying on to take the lead, are having trouble finding new recruits and keeping the ones already in uniform.
While admitting the situation is grim, a strong bipartisan majority voted 288-139 to defeat the withdrawal plan, saying that giving up now would leave the region even worse off and pose a greater danger to U.S. interests as the Islamic State, also known by the acronyms ISIS and ISIL, advances.
“If the United States were to remove all of our forces from the theater as this resolution calls for, ISIS would surely grow stronger,” said Rep. Edward R. Royce, California Republican and chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee.
The vote was the latest sign of ambivalence in Congress, where many members say Mr. Obama is fighting an unauthorized war, but where lawmakers have been unable to unify behind an alternative strategy, which has left the White House free to fight on its own terms.
A sizable minority of the House said it was time to force the issue.
Rep. James P. McGovern, Massachusetts Democrat, said lawmakers are “guilty of moral cowardice,” content to spend money — $9.1 million a day through this month — and put troops in harm’s way, but refuse to step up and take responsibility for debating the war, which has been going on for nearly a year. This resolution, he said, would give House leadership “a deadline they can’t ignore.”
His measure would have required the administration to end the U.S. involvement in Iraq and Syria, except to protect diplomatic facilities and personnel, if Congress did not pass a new Islamic State-specific authorization for the use of military force before the end of the year.
About 3,500 U.S. personnel are currently overseas in the campaign against the Islamic State, mostly acting as advisers or trainers for Iraqi troops. U.S. forces are also conducting airstrikes on targets in both Iraq and Syria.
Mr. Carter, who previously questioned Iraqi forces’ will to fight after they abandoned their weapons and fled Ramadi amid a string of car bomb attacks, said some progress is being made but that many problems remain unsolved and training is moving too slowly.
“The combination of disunity, deserters and so-called ghost soldiers — who are paid on the books but don’t show up or don’t exist — has greatly diminished their capacity,” Mr. Carter said.
Mr. Carter acknowledged that the Pentagon is lagging behind in its mission to prepare Iraqis for war because the country is unable to recruit enough fighters to train. The U.S. had hoped to train 24,000 Iraqis by the fall, yet U.S. trainers have only trained about 7,000 Iraqis, Mr. Carter said.
Despite those difficulties, military leaders said that past experience shows that it must be local forces, not U.S. troops, that secure the country to keep long-term stability.
“Could we go in and do a better job ourselves against ISIL? Absolutely. But we’ll be back in there two years from now,” Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said.
Mr. Obama announced last week that he would send an additional 450 U.S. advisers to al-Taqaddum Air Base in al Anbar province, located between the Islamic State-held cities of Ramadi and Fallujah. The additional U.S. troops are providing advice and assistance to Iraqi leaders in the fight in Anbar as well as coordinating with Sunni tribes to bring them into the U.S. training pipeline.
Rep. Mac Thornberry, Texas Republican and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, questioned how such a small number could make any difference in the broader fight against the Islamic State, especially given the complicated security situation and problems with local forces.
“I know of no one who thinks that 450 more in Iraq under current constraints will turn the tide against ISIS,” he said.
But Mr. Carter said those 450 new troops are already making progress, recruiting Sunni fighters to go through the training and told lawmakers they could expect to see visible results in a matter of “weeks.”
When asked by a lawmaker if the U.S. was “winning” in the fight against the Islamic State, Gen. Dempsey cautioned that it’s the Iraqis’ fight to win, not the United States’. When pressed, however, on the status of the U.S. fight, Gen. Dempsey said America is on its way to providing Iraqis the training they were promised.
“We are on the path to deliver that which we’ve committed to delivering, which is security forces, not just [Iraqi Security Forces] but peshmerga and Sunni tribes,” he said. “We are on the path to deliver to them the capability to combat ISIL in their sovereign territory.”
Mr. Carter said that a victory in the fight would not be destroying every Islamic State terrorist. Instead, winning is defined for him as eliminating any safe haven where terrorists could gather and plan attacks.
“Success in this campaign would be not eliminating every mole … but every mole hole,” he said.
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