America’s top-ranking military officer found himself at odds Tuesday with the nation’s commander-in-chief over his claim that the Islamic State was “contained” – an assertion President Obama had made before the Paris terror attacks.
Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, gave a dim assessment when asked during a House Armed Services Committee hearing whether that's the case.
“We have not contained ISIL currently,” Dunford told Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va.
The answer runs counter to the claim made by Obama last month in an ABC News interview when asked about the status of the anti-ISIS campaign.
“I don't think they're gaining strength. What is true is that from the start our goal has been first to contain, and we have contained them. They have not gained ground in Iraq. And in Syria, they'll come in, they'll leave, but you don't see this systematic march by ISIL across the terrain,” Obama said.
The remarks were made a day before the Nov. 13 Paris terror attacks, which were carried out by ISIS militants, and later had to be clarified by the White House as the administration faced bipartisan criticism. White House Deputy Press Secretary Ben Rhodes said Obama was referring specifically to the group’s geographic expansion in Iraq and Syria.
“They had been on the march in both Iraq and Syria for some time but starting a year ago, we were able to halt that expansion,” Rhodes said in an interview.
At the Tuesday hearing, Defense Secretary Ash Carter also announced that the U.S. will send special ops forces to Syria while expanding its special ops presence in Iraq, to bolster the fight against ISIS.
Carter described the expansion in Iraq as a “specialized expeditionary targeting force.”
He said these special operators will be able to conduct raids, free hostages, gather intelligence and capture ISIS leaders. He did not offer troop numbers, but said it was being done in cooperation with the Iraqi government.
He also confirmed previously announced details about the special ops force being sent to Syria. Carter said the U.S. approach there has been allowing local forces – backed by the U.S. – to gain momentum and push south toward ISIS’ capital of Raqqa.
"To build on that momentum, we're sending -- on President Obama's orders and the Chairman's and my advice -- Special Operations forces personnel to Syria to support the fight against ISIL,” Carter said, adding that the move will allow the U.S. to gain ground intelligence, enhance air capabilities, and allow local forces to gain and hold ISIS-occupied territory.
“Where we find further opportunity to leverage such capability, we will be prepared to expand it,” Carter said.
Approximately 200 special operations forces, including intelligence personnel, pilots to position them, mechanics to maintain their aircraft, a quick reaction force and other support personnel in addition to the main assault force are headed to Iraq in the next few weeks as part of the new “specialized expeditionary targeting force” announced by Carter, according to a U.S. official.
A separate senior U.S. official said that capturing senior ISIS leaders would be an important component of the new assault force’s mission to learn more about ISIS networks as well.
“This intel gathering mission is just as important, if not more important, than killing bad guys,” a U.S. official told Fox News on Tuesday.
The official said the number of troops in this new special ops component “could grow” north of 200 people.
Carter, meanwhile, said that the “specialized expeditionary targeting force” would be deployed to assist Iraqi and Kurdish forces in putting further pressure on ISIS.
“This created a virtuous cycle of better intelligence, which generates more targets, more raids and more momentum,” he said, adding that the raids will be conducted at the invitation of the Iraqi government, and that the forces would also be able to launch operations into Syria.
Fox News' Lucas Tomlinson and The Associated Press contributed to this report.