U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said he will talk with his commanders in the coming days to identify additional ways the U.S. can intensify the fight against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, including more airstrikes, cyberattacks and American troops on the ground.He said the United States wants to do more in the fight and is “only limited by our own ingenuity” and ideas. Carter expressed confidence that the White House will approve recommendations, saying nothing he has asked President Barack Obama for yet in the conflicts has been turned down.
Carter spoke to reporters at Al-Dhafra Air Base near Abu Dhabi, an important launching point for military operations against the Islamic State group in the region.
His visit comes as the U.S. is considering moves to boost the number of American troops in Iraq, as well as other steps to help the Iraqis take on IS.
Carter suggested the U.S. may consider shifting the nature of its military campaign against the extremists, adding there could be more rapid targeting of the enemy as intelligence on the ground improves.
“As we’ve learned more and are more on top of the enemy, you can do more dynamic targeting,” Carter said.
Late last month, U.S. Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters that he and Carter believe there will be an increase in U.S. forces in Iraq in the coming weeks. Any final decision would be worked out with the Iraqi government and require Obama’s approval.
It’s unclear whether the increase would force the White House to formally approve a higher cap on troop levels in Iraq, now set at 3,780.
The Pentagon says there are close to 3,400 U.S. troops there now. According to U.S. officials, however, there are actually as many as 5,000 American forces in the country, but some do not count against the cap because they are in Iraq on temporary duty.
Dunford and Carter have said that accelerating the fight against IS could mean using Apache helicopters for combat missions, deploying more U.S. special operations forces or using American military advisers in Iraqi units closer to the front lines.
The U.S. also is likely to provide additional artillery fire and targeting help for Iraqi forces advancing on Mosul. Those American forces, however, would remain well behind the front lines.
Carter has said that Obama and other U.S. leaders will encourage other Gulf nations to contribute economically to the effort to rebuild Iraq once IS is defeated.
Obama and other U.S. officials are expected to attend the U.S.-Gulf Cooperation Council leaders’ summit next week in Saudi Arabia. The six member countries are Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman.
Carter said Saturday that the U.S. hopes that the Gulf nations will support Iraq politically as it tries to establish a more successful multisectarian government.
During his visit to the air base, Carter spoke with troops, including those who have been flying and supporting the airstrikes over Iraq and Syria.
Two large Global Hawk surveillance aircraft, an F-22 Raptor fighter jet and and F-15E strike fighter were arrayed in the hangar where Carter spoke.
U.S. Air Force Col. Johnny Barnes, the vice commander of the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing told reporters that Russian fighters in Syria haven’t impeded U.S. airstrikes. But he acknowledged that there were moments in northwest Syria when the Russian jets were an “inconvenience.”
Now that some have left the country, he said it’s been “less inconvenient.”