The Washington Times 

By: Gus Taylor

Sparks flew at a hearing on Capitol Hill on Wednesday when a key Republican accused the White House of “dithering” in its strategy for destroying the Islamic State group, while a top administration official argued the fight is in only its “earliest phase” and that progress is likely to be “uneven going forward.”

Brett McGurk, President Obama’s deputy special envoy to the anti-Islamic State coalition, told lawmakers that while the extremist group’s main offensive in Iraq “has been halted,” there is still “hard fighting” to be done against the group, which also is known by the acronyms ISIS and ISIL.

His comments came a day after State John F. Kerry told lawmakers Mr. Obama wants expansive war powers to pursue the extremists wherever and however he deems necessary and requested a war authorization that would even allow the Pentagon to commit significant U.S. troops to the fight.

Mr. Kerry said Mr. Obama does not want to commit American soldiers, but would prefer not to have his hands tied by Congress should the Islamic State expand its fight to other nations or prove difficult to rout.

With uncertainty over the secretary of state’s request in the backdrop, debate over the administration’s overall strategy became heated on House side Wednesday when Mr. McGurk suggested the administration has made few changes to its existing strategy, despite heavy criticism from Republicans.

While there is evidence that Islamic State’s advance in Iraq has been halted by U.S.-led airstrikes, reports suggest the group is now surging in parts of Syria, particularly around the city of Aleppo, a stronghold of non-Islamist Syrian rebels.

But Mr. McGurk, who appeared before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the White House is still waiting until March 2016 to open a program aimed at training roughly 5,000 Syrian rebels a year to fight the Islamic State on Syrian soil.

He made the comments under intense questioning from Rep. Ted Poe, Texas Republican, over why it has taken so long for the training to get underway.

While Mr. McGurk attempted to tell Mr. Poe that it “was designed to be a long-term program,” the two suddenly engaged in a biting round of interrupting each other.

“Just a second. No, you wait a minute,” said Mr. Poe. “I’m asking the questions. You give the answer. The answer is we have not trained any!”

Mr. McGurk responded that “We have to be very clear-eyed on what the program is.”

Part of the reason for the slowness, he said, “is because of the vetting standards” that have to be met to ensure that Syrians selected for the training won’t switch sides and support the Islamists they’ve been trained to fight against. There are also fears the program could be infiltrated.

“We’re being careful about this,” Mr. McGurk said. “But we’re not sitting on our hands.”

The exchange seemed to epitomize the challenge facing the current administration strategy of relying on local ground forces — whether in Iraq or in Syria — to break the Islamic State’s hold on territory after months of U.S.-led air strikes against the group.

Rep. Eliot Engel, New York Democrat and the ranking member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, said the U.S. and its partners are “making progress.” But he pointed to reports that the Islamic State “is recruiting more than 1,000 foreign fighters every month,” with recruits “streaming” in from “Europe, North Africa, the Gulf, the U.S. and other nations.”

With such numbers far outweighing the current Obama administration future plan to train 5,000 Syrians a year, Mr. Engel said “we are nowhere near stamping out this threat.”

Rep. Ed Royce, California Republican and the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, said the issue is particularly vexing in Syria where, he asserted, the Islamic State now controls roughly the same amount of territory it did prior to the onset of air strikes in September.