How Much Money Is Enough to Take Down ISIS?

Smoke rises over the Syrian town of Kobani after an airstrike on October 18, 2014. The town was the site of intense fighting between ISIS and Kurdish fighters aided by U.S. and coalition forces. Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters

Republicans, who are inclined to snort at anything President Barack Obama does, were quick Tuesday to dump on the administration's budget for fighting ISIS, saying it's not enough to defeat an enemy that makes Al-Qaeda seem pale in comparison.

And if these critics of Obama's strategy needed any more ammunition to make their case, ISIS gave it to them in spades, releasing a video that showed them executing a captured Jordanian pilot by burning him alive. Until now, the group's preferred method of killing prisoners has been beheadings or machine-gunning them en mass.

Obama called the pilot's execution by fire "just one more indication of the viciousness and barbarity of this organization." And he proclaimed that "it will redouble the vigilance and determination on the part of the global coalition to make sure that they are degraded and ultimately defeated."

But on Capitol Hill, where a growing number of critics have questioned Obama's commitment to defeating ISIS, Republicans used the group's latest atrocity to call attention to what they say is the paltry amount of money—$5.3 billion—that Obama requested in his proposed fiscal 2016 budget for the fight against ISIS in both Iraq and Syria, which he had presented to Congress just the day before.

"His budget request is inadequate," Republican Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told Newsweek. "He is not committed to actually defeating Islamic terror. He's just trying to contain it the best he can and push it off until some other president has to deal with it."

Johnson may have a point. The president has asked for $4 billion to continue his seven-month bombing campaign against ISIS targets, $700 million to train and equip Iraqi security forces, and $600 million to prepare and outfit moderate Syrian rebels. That's out of a total $585 billion request for defense. Even nonpartisan independent experts say the request isn't enough to wipe out ISIS anytime soon.

Around 4,500 U.S. military advisers are either in or on their way to Iraq to train Iraqi and Kurdish forces for a planned ground offensive later this year to recapture the northern city of Mosul, which was overrun by ISIS last summer. But on that front, too, Obama's detractors say his strategy is doomed unless he commits more U.S. troops to the fight.

"I don't care if it's $700 billion," Republican John McCain of Arizona, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told Newsweek. "The strategy is not going to work unless we have forward air controllers, special forces, intel and a whole bunch of other people on the ground."

McCain called the $600 million budget request to train and equip moderate Syrian rebel "minuscule." And he and other Republicans described as "immoral" Obama's strategy in Syria, where ISIS controls roughly a third of the country.

"It's militarily unsound and immoral to train any Syrian Free Army to go back into Syria unless you neutralize [President Bashar] Assad's air power," Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in an interview. "He will kill any force we generate."

Thus, it looks as if Obama's requests for funding for his anti-ISIS strategy will face a steep climb as the Republican-controlled House and Senate begin their annual process of assessing the president's budget request and legislating appropriations. Graham said that he, for one, is "not going to spend a penny training an army that has no chance of succeeding. The Syrian training model is doomed to fail because the product that you're creating is subject to being barrel-bombed out of existence by Assad, and [the administration] will not answer the question: Will we engage Assad's air power to protect the troops we train?"

McCain, who is responsible for shepherding the annual defense authorization bill to the Senate floor, agreed. "It's an immoral and flawed strategy that they're employing," he said. "I'm not going to add any money until I find out if there's a strategy—none."

Independent strategic analysts also agreed that the money Obama is seeking for the fight against ISIS is not enough to fund the kind of campaign that they say will be needed to uproot and destroy the terrorist group. According to Pentagon officials, the strategy calls for the training of 12 Iraqi and Kurdish brigades—roughly 24,000 men. The U.S. hopes that provincial militias—so called "national guards—can muster a similar number of fighters. U.S. intelligence officials estimate ISIS's strength to be around 20,000 troops, along with American tanks and artillery captured from the fleeing Iraqi army. Although the U.S. bombing campaign has killed an estimated 6,000 ISIS fighters since it began last August, U.S. officials say the group recruits about 1,000 new fighters per month, raising questions about the aerial campaign's overall effectiveness.

"For the mission at hand, the money is totally inadequate," Christopher Harmer, a strategic analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, told Newsweek. "If we are trying to destroy a terrorist outfit that has morphed into an insurgency that has now morphed into some form of a state-based military, it's going to take a lot more than that."

Harmer, a 20-year U.S. Navy veteran, said the U.S. air campaign against ISIS can only accomplish so much. To defeat ISIS, a capable Iraqi ground force will be needed to root out the militants in house-to-house, door-to-door combat and coordinate with U.S. warplanes providing close air support. "It's going to take a lot of money for them to get manned, trained and equipped at that operational level of expertise," he said.

Harmer compared the looming ground battle against ISIS to the U.S. military's so-called Iraq "surge" in 2006, when Sunni tribes in Anbar province allied with U.S. forces against the Al-Qaeda affiliate in Iraq, the forerunner of ISIS. Back then, the surge required tens of thousands of U.S. troops, thousands of Sunni tribesmen on the U.S. payroll, U.S. airpower and U.S. intelligence to defeat Al-Qaeda in Iraq. And it was a two-year effort that cost tens of billions of dollars.

"Today ISIS is bigger than Al-Qaeda in Iraq ever was," said Harmer. "So if it took us tens of billions of dollars to execute the surge eight years ago against an enemy that was smaller and less capable than the one we're facing today, it's going to take at least that much money now to go against an enemy that is bigger, better financed, better trained, better equipped and a lot more radical."

Robert Gates, who served as Obama's first defense secretary, has joined the chorus of those who say he can't defeat ISIS on the cheap. "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 told NBC's Meet the Press on Sunday. "With the means he has approved so far, I think that's an unattainable objective."

Analysts also note that during the surge U.S. troops had close, around-the-clock air support. Today, they say, it will be extremely difficult for U.S. warplanes to provide such support to Iraqi ground forces without American forward air controllers—usually U.S. special forces on the battlefield that direct airstrikes at enemy targets. So far, Obama has been unwilling to put such U.S. forces on the ground in Iraq.

But that may be changing. Outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Sunday that the U.S. may need to send more noncombat ground troops to Iraq to help defeat ISIS forces. He said such troops could include forward air controllers to identify and direct fire on ISIS targets, as well as intelligence officers. "I think it may require a forward deployment of some of our troops," he told CNN.

But Hagel also seemed to confirm Republican concerns about Obama's reluctance to order a larger U.S. footprint in Iraq. "I would say we're not there yet," he added. "Whether we get there or not, I don't know."