Criticizing the Obama administration’s handling of the fight against Islamic State, former US Defense Secretary Robert Gates has argued that small teams of special forces will be needed on the ground in Iraq and Syria to assist with airstrikes.

Gates, who served as Secretary of Defense under Obama and George W. Bush, criticized Washington’s strategy against the insurgent group as “unrealistic” and “unattainable,” he told NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday.

“The president has set an ambitious and, I think under current circumstances, an unrealistic goal when he talks about our intent being to destroy ISIS,” Gates said. “With the means he has approved so far, I think that’s an unattainable objective.”

Gates said that special forces will be needed in Iraq and Syria to assist with the airstrikes. A “re-invasion of Iraq with large ground forces is a false set of options,” he added, but “a few hundred troops” should be stationed in the region.

The former Pentagon chief said any military strategy against IS that involves a “re-invasion of Iraq” with large ground troops is a “false set of options,” advising instead that Obama send small teams of Special Forces to assist with the aerial attacks in Syria and Iraq.

Such a plan would further increase the Syrian government’s objections – and suspicions – of American forces carrying out military operations on its territory, even if IS appears to be a serious enemy of Damascus as well. Syrian President Bashar Assad has expressed harsh criticism of US airstrikes on the territory of his country, which has been wracked by a years-long civil war.

Gates is calling for a strategy that would deny IS forces the ability to “hang onto territory” that could be used as a base of operations to “plot against the United States or Western Europe.”

While US aerial strikes that began back in September have loosened the insurgency group’s grip on northern parts of Iraq, the strategy will not remove them from the country without some new plan, he said.


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