CAMP ARIFJAN, Kuwait — Calling the Islamic State “hardly invincible,” new Defense Secretary Ashton Carter gave his blessing on Monday to the U.S.-led strategy against the militant group after convening a high-powered summit of U.S. commanders and diplomats here.
Carter emerged from a six-hour strategy session with military leaders and ambassadors to say he was encouraged by the direction of the campaign against the Islamic State. He gave no indication that he would push for major changes in the Obama administration’s approach, despite urging from some members of Congress to move more aggressively.
“The lasting defeat of this brutal group can and will be accomplished,” Carter told reporters at this U.S. Army installation close to the Iraqi border.
At the same time, the Pentagon chief acknowledged that the war against the Islamic State has become more complex, with the militant movement spreading into North Africa and Afghanistan, showing few signs of budging from its strongholds in Iraq and Syria, and drawing new recruits from Europe and the United States.
Carter took office just a week ago and has already adopted a more visible and direct role in the campaign against the Islamic State than did his predecessor, Chuck Hagel. But he did not offer any fresh ideas in public for combating the group and was circumspect when asked about how he will grapple with some key decisions he is likely to face in the coming months.
At a question-and-answer session earlier on Monday with scores of soldiers at Camp Arifjan, Carter was asked whether he would send more troops to Iraq. “I don’t have a good answer for you right now,” he replied. “That’s one of the things that I want to climb on top of.”
About 3,000 U.S. troops are in Iraq, mostly serving to advise and train Iraqi security forces. An additional 9,700 American troops are stationed in Kuwait, mostly at Camp Arifjan and Ali Al Salem Air Base, a key Air Force outpost in the Persian Gulf.
Carter was also noncommittal when another soldier asked what conditions might drive him to recommend to President Barack Obama that U.S. troops should become engaged in direct ground combat with the Islamic State — something the president has repeatedly vowed to avoid.
“I think we need to be convinced that any use of our forces is necessary, is going to be sufficient, that we’ve thought through not just the first step, but the second step and the third step,” Carter said.
U.S. military commanders have not ruled out asking for the authority to put U.S. troops into combat on a limited basis, such as by deploying Special Operations forces with Iraqi units or having them call in airstrikes. But the commanders have also said such a move has not been necessary thus far during the eight-month-old fight against Islamic State.
“If I think we need that capability, I’ll certainly ask for it,” Army Lt. Gen. James Terry, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria, told reporters on Monday at Camp Arifjan. “I think we’ve been very effective so far without it.”
Islamic State fighters swept quickly and easily across vast stretches of Iraq and Syria last year. Obama ordered troops to Iraq in response, and the U.S. military and its allies began a large-scale bombing campaign in August. Terry said the Islamic State is now “halted, on the defensive,” but he allowed that the militant group is still carrying out attacks against Iraqi forces in an attempt to regain territory.
“No doubt they’re adaptive,” he said, “but we’re not seeing the broad counteroffensives.”