The Pentagon admitted Wednesday that only "four or five" Syrian rebels trained by the United States are actually in Syria.
The number was revealed by Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, commander of U.S. Central Command, under grilling by senators at an Armed Services Committee hearing.
"Let's not kid ourselves. That's a joke," said Sen. Kelly AyotteKelly AyotteHow Gorsuch's confirmation shapes the next Supreme Court battle THE MEMO: Trump set to notch needed win with Gorsuch Gorsuch sherpa: Dems giving GOP ‘no choice’ on nuclear option MORE (R-N.H.).
"Clearly the train and equip is too little, too late," said Sen. Angus KingAngus KingRepublican Sen. Collins considering run for Maine governor in 2018 Conway: Dems should listen to their constituents on tax reform Sen. King: Trump needs Congress to sign off on new military action MORE (I-Maine), who caucuses with Democrats. Sen. Mazie HironoMazie Hirono March for Science rallies draw huge crowds around US Dems knock Trump on Earth Day Hawaii senators fire back at Sessions' 'island in the Pacific' comment MORE (D-Hawaii) questioned whether the Pentagon would relax its criteria for rebels participating in the program to boost recruit numbers.
Sen. Jeff SessionsJeff SessionsSunday shows preview: Trump stares down 100-day mark Sanctuary City mayors fire back at DOJ over criticism Trump wall faces skepticism on border MORE (R-Ala.) was blunt.
"We have to acknowledge it's a total failure," he said. "It's way past time to react to that failure."
The Pentagon deployed the first class of 54 rebels into Syria in July. Some had traveled to Turkey to visit family during Ramadan, but were unable to come back.
Those remaining in Syria faced severe losses after al Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra Front kidnapped two leaders and several fighters, and the next day, attacked their headquarters, killing one and kidnapping more.
The Obama administration announced the training program last year, as a way to create a ground force to take on ISIS without having to deploy U.S. forces to push out the terrorist group in Syria, where it has no government partner or forces.
“The administration knew on the front end this would be a difficult task," White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters on Wednesday. “It’s proven to be even more difficult than we thought.”
Congress in September granted the Pentagon the authority to undertake the program. Congress appropriated $500 million for the program in 2015. The Pentagon has requested $600 million for the program in 2016. The administration's goal is to train 15,000 rebels in three years.
Christine Wormuth, under secretary of Defense for Policy, said "clearly" the target of 5,400 by December would not be reached.
She said the Pentagon was currently training between 100 and 120 more rebels. The Pentagon last week said there were three classes now in training.
--Jordan Fabian contributed to this report, which was updated at 1:35 p.m.