Gates: 'Small number' of US ground troops needed to combat ISIS

A "small number" of U.S. ground forces will be needed to vanquish the threat of Islamic extremists galloping through the Middle East, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Sunday.

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Gates said that, while President Obama is "right" to emphasize that "the primary ground action" should be undertaken by local forces, American boots would be necessary to combat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

"What I believe, and what I suspect most military people believe, is that, given the mission the president has assigned, which is degrade and destroy, that to be able to do that, some small number of American advisers, trainers, special forces and forward spotters for air controllers are going to have to be in harm's way," Gates said on ABC's "This Week" program. "I think that number will be very small."

President Obama has vowed not to commit U.S. ground troops in the ISIS fight, focusing instead on airstrikes, and training and arming Syrian rebels, outside of Syria, who are already fighting the militants.

Toward that end, the White House has sought to downplay the necessity of U.S. ground forces as the conflict evolves.

"They are not in a combat role," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Thursday. "They’re in an advise-and-assist role that, yes, that does carry with it some risk. But it is different than the combat role that American troops were engaged in for such a long time in Iraq."

But many lawmakers on Capitol Hill are wary that the mission would creep to require larger scale U.S. forces.

The debate seems poised to hinge on what the definition of combat troops is, a question each side of the argument has tried to frame to their advantage.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has said she's "a blanket no" when it comes to sending ground troops to fight ISIS. But the California Democrat left the door wide open for small-scale forces, noting that one option the administration is weighing is to put U.S. troops on the ground "to advise on the airstrikes."

"And if that's what they're talking about, I don't know that anybody has a big problem with that," she said Wednesday.

Gates on Sunday noted that the U.S. has been fighting al Qaeda for 13 years without eradicating the threat altogether. With that in mind, he suggested the administration's goal of "destroying" ISIS is overly "ambitious."

"This is a generational conflict, and we need to understand that, and we also need to be very modest about how we can shape the outcomes here,” Gates told ABC.

He said he supports the idea of sending small teams of U.S. advisors to help local forces combat ISIS.

"What the administration is trying to communicate is that we're not going to send battalions, we're not going to send brigades," Gates said. "But there will have to be, I think, to achieve the mission the president has assigned, some American boots on the ground and in harm's way."