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Islamic State 101: three tricky problems for US military campaign

The campaign to train Iraqi and Syrian fighters to take on the Islamic State will be long and difficult. “This will not look like ‘shock and awe,’ ” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey told a Senate committee Sept. 16.

Here are what are likely to be the top three trickiest sticking points for the US military campaign in the months to come:

2. Who are the 'moderate' Syrian rebels?

Edlib News Network ENN/AP/File
This 2013 photo shows soldiers for the Nusra Front, and Al Qaeda affiliated rebel group in Syria. Lawmakers do not want US weapons falling into their hands.

The CIA recently bumped up its estimates of IS fighters from its earlier rough count in the 10,000 to 20,000 range to about 31,000.

The Department of Defense has requested $500 million to train and equip a “moderate” opposition. The Pentagon estimates it can train about 5,000 fighters over the course of one year. This, not incidentally, makes the cost of training each fighter roughly $100,000, Sen. Joe Manchin (D) of West Virginia noted Tuesday. It will include small arms, communications equipment, vehicles, and instruction.

Finding moderates isn’t easy, lawmakers repeatedly pointed out. For his part, Senator Manchin worried aloud that the “weapons and training will probably be used against us in the future.”

Secretary Hagel tried to reassure the senators that the Pentagon would do its best to keep this from happening. “We will monitor them closely, to ensure that weapons do not fall into the hands of radical elements of the opposition, ISIL, the Syrian regime, or other extremist groups.”

That said, he warned that “there will always be a risk in a program like this.”

Dempsey surprised a number of lawmakers, however, when he said that he didn’t think finding “moderate” Syrian fighters “will be difficult, actually.” The key, he warned, will be finding them “in the right numbers,” suggesting that too few exist for the Pentagon’s liking.

On the plus side, he said, the Pentagon will be recruiting from the “displaced” population, so it “won’t be as though they’re giving up the security of their families to come train with us.” Saudi Arabia has agreed to host the training.

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