WASHINGTON – More U.S. troops could deploy overseas in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and the ongoing war in Afghanistan, the top commander in the region said Thursday.
The Pentagon has authorized about 500 U.S. special operations forces to be deployed in Syria, but Army Gen. Joseph Votel said there might be the need for additional conventional U.S. forces to help stabilize Raqqa after local Syrian forces push ISIS out of its de facto capital there.
“I think as we move towards the latter part of these operations into more of the stability and others aspects of the operations, we will see more conventional forces requirements, perhaps,” said Votel, commander of U.S. Central Command.
Votel said local Syrian forces would provide the security in Raqqa, but U.S. forces could help ensure there is local leadership that is recognized by the people to provide humanitarian aid and other services for Syrian civilians returning to the city.
He did not comment on how many U.S. forces that mission might entail.
The coalition offensive to retake Raqqa is expected to begin in coming weeks. The U.S. has been providing airpower for the Syrian Democratic Forces – an Arab-Kurdish coalition of local militias – as they isolate the city in advance of the offensive.
A Pentagon proposal sent to the White House last week reportedly includes U.S. forces providing attack helicopter and artillery support. A U.S. Marine contingent with artillery has recently deployed into northern Syria, to help with the offensive, according to the Washington Post.
Votel said that deployment was to ensure there was “redundant” capable fire support, and to take advantage of opportunities and to ensure continued progress.
In Afghanistan, Votel said he agreed with the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Army Gen. John “Mick” Nicholson that “several thousand” more troops, U.S. or international, would be needed to help Afghan forces defeat the Taliban.
“I do believe it will involve additional forces to ensure that we can make the advise and assist mission more – more effective,” he said.
The deployment of more U.S. troops in the fights against ISIS and the Taliban would be the continuing reversal of troop drawdowns began by former President Obama.
Obama ordered all U.S. troops to withdraw from Iraq in December 2011, but then had to authorize the return of troops to Iraq and Syria in 2014 after ISIS took over broad swaths of territory in both countries.
He also ordered the end of combat mission in Afghanistan in 2014, and plans to withdraw all but an embassy presence for U.S. troops in the country. He was forced to abandon that plan after Taliban forces began to regain control in the south and in other pockets in the country.
When Obama left, there were about 5,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, with several thousands more deployed on a “temporary” basis, and about 500 authorized for Syria, with likely more on a temporary basis. There were also thousands more deployed to Kuwait to support the fight against ISIS.
In Afghanistan, there are currently about 8,400 U.S. troops there.