McCain and Senate Armed Forces Committee question general on Yemen, ISIS

By Heather Mongilio

Budget proposals were pushed aside in favor of questions on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Iran and the Saudi campaign into Yemen during the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on March 26.

The Senate committee, led by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) met to hear from Gen. Lloyd Austin, head of the U.S. Central Command, Gen. David Rodriquez, head of U.S. African Command, and Gen. Joseph Votel, head of the U.S. Special Operations Command. The three generals came to testify on their budget needs in order to maintain their operations.

“We must be properly resourced to do what is required,” Austin said.

McCain and Reed both said they felt that current threats would not be addressed properly if a possible sequestration were to affect the budgets of the three commands. Already they are facing strained budgets, McCain said.

“I fear you are expected to juggle with one hand behind your back,” he said in an opening statement.

Despite opening statements focusing on the budgetary needs on the three commands, the questions focused on the military operations run by each command.

The meeting quickly turned into an interrogation of Austin and the current operations at U.S. Central Command. The U.S. Central Command is a military operation that is used to provide support to U.S. forces during crisis and monitor and monitor the countries in the Middle East countries, including the current operations in fighting against ISIS.

Multiple senators focused their questioning on the command center’s progress on fighting ISIS, as well as the Saudi movement into Yemen, which occurred hours before the meeting.

“There is breaking news alert from The Associated Press, Gen. Austin, that Egypt and Saudi Arabia have begun a ground incursion into Yemen,” Sen.  Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) said.

Austin was given little prior notice before the Saudi movement, he said. The lack of warning was disheartening to McCain, who called it a “fantastic” sign of the deterioration of the Saudis trust in the United States.

“That is quite a commentary,” he said.

There is also concern over American weapons in enemy hands in Yemen. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) asked about recent videos showing captured American missile, adding his fear that the weapons will pass from Yemen to ISIS.

“Last week, reports have emerged from the Department of Defense that we are unable to account for assistance to Yemen, including weapons and equipment,” Manchin said. “I’m sure you all have seen the same pictures on YouTube that we are getting.”

The United States does not have the ability to go into Yemen, which means the military cannot oversee the weapons once they have been given to forces in Yemen backed by the United States, Austin said. The Central Command monitors the weapons usage and if the weapons are misused or abused, the United States will stop providing them, he said.

The United States does not have the ability to retrieve the weapons because of the inability to be in Yemen. This means Central Command cannot guarantee that weapons do not fall in the wrong hands in Syria, as well, Austin said.

“There is no way we can absolutely assure you that won’t happen,” Austin said

The current threat of ISIS in Yemen is unknown, but the country is in turmoil, he said. The other command leaders testified that Yemen could not be considered “a success story” for the U.S. military.

The current attacks in Yemen that sparked Saudi involvement may be from ISIS, Austin said. He currently prioritizes ISIS as the most pressing threat to U.S. security.

“In terms of a long-term threat in the region, Iran is the greatest threat,” Austin said. “I would have to say the most pressing threat is [ISIS]. And the one we have two defeats in the near term.”

The Central Command is currently working to stop the flow of foreign fighters into ISIS, as well as working to decrease funding, Austin said. Training soldiers in countries such as Iraq and Syria is also part of the plan. However, there is not a current plan to protect the soldiers the U.S. trains once they fight in Syria.

If they are attacked, the United States should protect them, Austin said. Similarly, if the trained soldiers do not do as asked by the United States military, the military and Central Command will cut off support.

Austin said he was hopeful that there would be new policy that would provide a plan for protection, but the lack of a current plan angered McCain, who said it was wrong to send soldiers into battle without protection.

“I’m very hopeful [for a policy], too, but hope doesn’t stop barrel bombing,” McCain said.

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