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US To Urge Partners To Do More To Fight Islamic State Amid Complaints From Pentagon

By W.J. Hennigan and Brian Bennett, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama has repeatedly touted the U.S.-led coalition assembled to battle Islamic State militants, but Pentagon officials are expressing growing frustration that some of the 64 partner nations and regional groups are backing the effort in name only.

Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter has been the most vocal, complaining recently that some allies are “not doing enough or doing nothing at all.”

The grumbling comes as the White House considers stepping up the war effort by sending several hundred more U.S. and allied trainers, advisers and special operations teams to assist Iraqi, Kurdish and Syrian opposition fighters arrayed against the militants in Iraq and Syria.

Pentagon planners argue that more coalition troops and other help are needed before Iraqi security forces can recapture Mosul, the militants’ self-declared capital in Iraq. Last year’s battle to retake Ramadi, a much smaller city west of Baghdad, took months longer than U.S. officials had expected.

Meeting with his national security advisers Thursday, Obama was briefed on plans to accelerate military and diplomatic efforts “on all possible fronts,” the White House said.

Secretary of State John F. Kerry will go to Rome on Tuesday to seek greater support from two dozen nations in the coalition.

They will “discuss ways to further intensify commitments across all lines of effort to degrade and defeat this terrorist group,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said Friday.

Carter will head to Brussels two weeks later to urge defense ministers from 26 countries to send more trainers and advisers, provide more support and reconnaissance aircraft, boost deliveries of arms and ammunition, and increase their role in the war, Pentagon officials said.

At least one nation has received the message. On Friday, the government in the Netherlands said Dutch airstrikes would begin to target militants in eastern Syria as well as in Iraq.

In a statement, Carter called the Dutch decision “a strong example” of what other countries should do. “Additional capabilities are needed from every member nation,” he said.

In addition to the military effort, coalition countries are supposed to impede the recruitment and travel of foreign fighters, stop the group’s funding and financing, address the humanitarian crisis and counter the group’s propaganda.

So far, the participation by each country has varied immensely.

Eight nations have launched bombing runs in Iraq, for example, and nine — mostly the same countries — have done so in Syria.

But America shoulders the heaviest load by far. U.S. warplanes have conducted 68 percent of the 6,655 airstrikes in Iraq and 94 percent of the 3,305 airstrikes in Syria since August 2014.

Coalition member Estonia, in contrast, has provided 12 mortars, 480 rifles and pistols, and more than a million rounds of ammunition.

“We’re a small country, so we can’t be all over the place,” Estonian diplomat Kairi Saar-Isop said. “We have to be very selective in how we help.”

Slovenia says it’s listed as a member of the coalition because it holds local courses designed to dissuade young people from becoming radicalized.

Lithuania has joined efforts to counter Islamic State propaganda and has helped track fighters trying to enter Europe, said Rolandas Krisciunas, its ambassador in Washington.

“We are currently in discussions to send instructors to Iraq to help them build the capacity of local police officers to be able to fight ISIS,” Krisciunas said, using another name for Islamic State.

The U.S. has sent 3,700 troops to Iraq. Sixteen other coalition countries have sent 2,400 troops.

Italian military police are training Iraqi police officers to secure cities once they have been retaken from Islamic State.

In northern Iraq, German, British and Dutch military adviser teams are training Kurdish fighters and providing new weapons, including anti-tank missiles.

Many of the other coalition members have beefed up security measures to identify and stop foreign fighters, and have donated money to humanitarian groups working with Syrian refugees. The U.S. remains the largest donor by far, however, giving $4.5 billion in aid to the Syria crisis.

In public, at least, Obama praises the joint effort. On Jan. 13, a day after he delivered his State of the Union speech, Obama noted that America has led a coalition of “more than 60 countries” for more than a year in trying to uproot Islamic State.

“We’re cutting off their financing,” he told a cheering crowd in Omaha, Neb. “We’re disrupting their plots. We’re stopping the flow of terrorist fighters. We’re stamping out their ideology. We’ve had 10,000 airstrikes. We’re taking out their leadership, their oil, their training camps, their weapons.”

The White House heralded support from its Sunni Arab allies when the air war began in September 2014, noting that aircraft from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates all joined the early attacks in Syria. But those flights quickly ended.

Saudi Arabia launched its own war last year against what it says are Iranian-backed insurgents in neighboring Yemen. Other Sunni nations appear more focused on Shiite Iran’s growing clout than the threat from Islamic State.

Arab states disagree over whether to target Islamic State or the Syrian forces loyal to President Bashar Assad, who is backed by Russia and Iran, Yousef Otaiba, the UAE ambassador to the U.S., said Friday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington.

“I think the first order of business if we are to resolve Syria is to get everyone on the same page and so far that has been very elusive,” Otaiba said.

The competing objectives have weakened the coalition, said Daniel Benjamin, a former State Department counterterrorism coordinator who now teaches at Dartmouth College.

“You have the makings of a real disconnect between us and our partners,” Benjamin said. “Like other White Houses before it, this White House wanted to demonstrate the legitimacy of what it was doing in the region by pointing to a large coalition, but much of that coalition is focused on other problems and as a result we are doing all the work in the conflict.”

(Times staff writer Tracy Wilkinson contributed to this report.)

©2016 Tribune Co. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: U.S. Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter attends the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland January 22, 2016.  REUTERS/Ruben Sprich

Senate Confirms Ashton Carter As New Defense Secretary

By W.J. Hennigan, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — The Senate voted overwhelmingly Thursday to approve the nomination of Ashton B. Carter, a former senior Pentagon official, as President Barack Obama’s fourth secretary of defense.

Carter, 60, will take over the Pentagon as the administration steps up the air war against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, officials consider slowing the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, and a new round of across-the-board spending cuts loom.

Carter, who will be sworn in next week, has worked under both Democratic and Republican presidents. He won unanimous support earlier this week from the Senate Armed Services Committee.

His easy sail through the confirmation process in the Republican-led Congress stands in stark contrast to his predecessor, Chuck Hagel, a former Republican senator who saw his nomination blocked for nearly two weeks two years ago after he stumbled in his confirmation hearings.

Hagel announced plans to resign on Nov. 24 under pressure from the White House. Hagel, who will stay in the job until Carter is sworn in, has not disclosed his plans after he leaves the Pentagon.

During his confirmation hearing, Carter decried the “malignant and savage terrorism” of Islamic State militants, warned of Iran’s expanding influence across the Middle East and called for an end to the congressionally mandated spending cuts known as sequestration.

Carter also said he was “very much inclined” to provide weapons and ammunition to Ukrainian government forces fighting Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, signaling a possible shift in administration policy.

In a White House news conference on Monday, Obama said for the first time that he was considering supplying arms to Ukraine. But he said he had not made a decision and listed reasons why he might oppose deepening the U.S. involvement.

The issue may be moot, however, if a cease-fire deal announced Thursday in Minsk, Belarus, leads to a peaceful resolution of the conflict.

Carter’s immediate focus will be military operations against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, as well as renewed violence in Afghanistan. The military is also trying to deploy additional forces to Asia and the Western Pacific, partly to counterbalance China.

Carter first joined the Pentagon in 1981 under President Ronald Reagan as a technical analyst. A decade later, President Bill Clinton named him assistant secretary of defense for international security policy, where he worked to ensure that the former Soviet nuclear weapons stockpile did not fall into the hands of potential terrorists or rogue states.

Carter left the Pentagon in 1996. He returned in 2009 to serve in the department’s No. 3 slot as the chief weapons buyer, working on the $400-billion F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program. He was named deputy secretary in 2011 but left again after Obama picked Hagel to succeed Leon E. Panetta.

AFP Photo/Mandel Ngan

Senate Panel Advances Obama’s Pentagon Nominee Carter

Washington (AFP) – A U.S. Senate panel voted unanimously Tuesday in support of Ashton Carter to be the new secretary of defense, sending his nomination to a full chamber vote possibly this week.

The Senate Armed Services Committee voted 25-0 to advance the nomination of Carter, a highly-regarded technocrat who is expected to be confirmed to replace outgoing Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel.

Hagel resigned under pressure, criticized by some as too passive in the face of rapidly changing security developments, and as the United States prepares its next phase in the war against Islamic extremists.

Senator John McCain, the panel’s chairman, is a fierce critic of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy, saying that as commander in chief Obama has failed drastically to show leadership in the midst of crises in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere.

But McCain praised Carter as an accomplished and intelligent defense overseer.

“Hopefully we can get a vote perhaps even as early as tomorrow,” McCain told the committee after the vote.

The U.S. military that Carter would inherit finds itself in an air war against Islamic extremists in Iraq and Syria, a sharp reversal of course for an administration that had sought to bring home troops after 13 years of fighting.

He must also oversee the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, as well as challenges posed by Iran’s nuclear program and China’s growing military might.

Photo: A US Senate panel has voted unanimously in support of Ashton Carter to be the new secretary of defense (AFP/Mandel Ngan)

Obama Names Ex-Defense Official Ashton Carter As Pick To Run Pentagon

By W.J. Hennigan, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — President Obama today nominated former top Defense Department official Ashton B. Carter to replace outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, describing Carter as an innovator, a reformer and “one of nation’s foremost national security leaders.”

“On day one, he’s going to hit the ground running,” the president said.

Obama formally announced his choice from the White House. Hagel, who was pushed out of the post late last month, was expected to attend the event, but backed out at last minute.

Carter, 60, is expected to win Senate confirmation without major difficulty after the new Congress convenes next month.

Carter previously served as the Pentagon’s chief weapons buyer, and as deputy Defense secretary, the No. 2 official. While out of government, he served on advisory boards for both Democratic and Republican administrations.

Unlike Hagel, he never served in uniform. But Carter is widely respected in the military establishment and in national security circles for his experience in managing the vast Pentagon bureaucracy and budgets.

A native of Philadelphia, Carter holds degrees in physics and medieval history from Yale and a doctorate in theoretical physics from Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes scholar.

Carter first joined the Pentagon in 1981 for a year under President Reagan as a technical analyst. He left to teach at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before spending nine years as a professor at Harvard University.

In 1993, President Clinton named him assistant secretary of Defense for international security policy, a post in which Carter worked to ensure that the former Soviet nuclear weapons stockpile did not fall into the hands of potential terrorists or rogue states.

He left the Pentagon in 1996 but returned as chief weapons buyer after President Obama took office in 2009. He restructured the controversial $400-billion F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, and approved purchase of 8,000 armored vehicles and construction of 200 new bases for the military buildup in Afghanistan in 2010.

Carter was named deputy secretary in 2011 but left again after Obama picked Hagel to succeed Leon E. Panetta.

AFP Photo/Jung Yeon-Je