WASHINGTON -- Retired Gen. John Allen, the U.S. government's point person for the international fight against the Islamic State, publicly admitted on Thursday what most Americans have long suspected about the United States' newest military conflict. Eight months after the initial bombing campaign began in Iraq, Allen told members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee that there is no exit plan for what increasingly seems to be an intractable conflict.
During a Thursday morning hearing, Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) asked Allen, who in September was appointed as the Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, to describe the exit strategy for an eventual conclusion to the war.
Allen responded, “The exit strategy is an Iraq that is territorially secure, sovereign."
"An ISIL that has been denied safe haven, ultimately has been disrupted to the point where it has no capacity to threaten at an existential level the government of Iraq and the nation of the Iraqi people -- and ultimately ends up in a state that does not permit it to threaten the United States or our homeland,” the general said, using the Obama administration’s preferred name for the Islamic State.
“General Allen, that doesn’t sound like a strategy to me, that sounds like a wish list,” Grayson countered.
The discussion continued back and forth.
“There’s no exit strategy for this. This is about dealing with Daesh. This is about defeating Daesh. The success of the strategy is not about exit,” Allen eventually said, using the acronym for the Arabic name for the Islamic State.
To lawmakers like Grayson, the lack of an exit strategy suggests that the conflict is bound to devolve into an ongoing quagmire, in troubling echoes of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“It disturbs me, it’s beyond problematic,” Grayson told The Huffington Post after the hearing. “It’s clear that once we get in, once we get entrenched in the manner that the General is describing, we will literally never get out."
"We’ll see the same kind of forever war forecast in 1984," he added. "It’s Orwellian.”
Allen’s admission comes two days after President Barack Obama announced that 9,800 American troops would remain in Afghanistan through at least the rest of 2015, even though he declared in December 2014 that America's longest war was officially over.
While Grayson and other Democrats fear another open-ended U.S. military commitment, Republicans criticize Obama for being too hesitant in responding to threats abroad.
"The world is starving for American leadership, but America has an anti-war president,” House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) told reporters in a press conference Thursday morning. “If America leads, our allies in the region would be tickled to death and would be happy to join the [anti-Islamic State] coalition. But America has to lead."
The debate over whether the military campaign is too open-ended or too limited has become the main obstacle to the administration's effort to get Congress to pass an Authorization for the Use of Military Force specifically tailored to this conflict.
The Obama administration claims that the AUMF passed in 2001 in response to the 9/11 terror attacks also applies to the war against the Islamic State. However, aware of the questionable optics of relying on a 14-year old piece of legislation passed for a different conflict, Obama asked Congress in February to vote on a new war authorization, drafted by the administration.
Since then, there have been multiple hearings and briefings on the legislation, but a vote does not appear imminent. Asked on Thursday about a possible timeline for a vote, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) said, "Thus far, this bipartisan examination has included a number of hearings and briefings, including today’s hearing and a committee meeting last week with the intelligence community. The committee is planning to hear from the Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense about the proposal in April."
"After this committee review," he said, "we’ll look at next steps.”
Most Democrats, like Grayson, are concerned that the administration's proposed AUMF contains no geographic limits, vague restrictions on ground troops and an unclear definition of who can be targeted. They also note that the measure leaves the expansive 2001 AUMF untouched.
On the other side of the aisle, a majority of Republicans want to remove any language that restricts ground troops and are resistant to a sunset provision, which would require Congress to reauthorize the war after three years.
"The bad thing about the authorization to use military force -- the request that came from the president -- is the president is asking us to give him less authority than he has today under prior authorization,” Boehner said on Thursday.
The Department of Defense estimates that the daily cost of the campaign against the Islamic State is approximately $8.5 million, or $3.1 billion a year. As a way of sidestepping the spending caps imposed in 2011 under sequestration, House Republicans' budget for fiscal year 2016 puts $96 billion in a separate part of the budget, called Overseas Contingency Operations, which funds overseas conflicts and is not subject to the caps. The proposal provides $38 billion more than what the Obama administration originally requested for OCO.
The budget passed in the House on Wednesday and is expected to go to a vote in the Senate late Thursday night.
Laura Barron-Lopez contributed reporting.