(CNSNews.com) - Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told Congress on Thursday that the Obama administration finally seems to understand that "ISIL's reach is global and growing."
He began a confirmation hearing for Eric Fanning, nominated by President Obama to be the next Army Secretary, with an announcement about the spreading threat posed by Islamic State terrorists:
"It's been reported that the White House has authorized the Department of Defense to target ISIL in Afghanistan -- the first such authorization beyond Iraq and Syria," McCain said. "Many of us may be interested to know that we have confined our attacks on ISIL to Iraq and Syria.
"Now the administration seems to be waking up to the fact that more than a year into the U.S. military campaign, ISIL's reach is global and growing.
"We can only hope it won't take so long for the administration to realize that conditions on the ground in Afghanistan simply don't warrant a dangerous, calendar-driven withdrawal of U.S. forces."
McCain has criticized President Obama's announced plan to further reduce U.S. troop strength in Afghanistan at the end of 2016. The U.S. combat role ended in 2015.
This past October, President Obama announced that he was dropping plans to withdraw nearly all U.S. forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2016. He now plans to leave office with at least 5,500 U.S. troops on the ground to advise and assist the struggling Afghan forces.
If confirmed, Eric Fanning would be the first openly gay person to serve as the U.S. Army's civilian head.
Fanning, in his opening statement, said the Army's soldiers would be his highest priorty: "Specifically, making sure they are ready, which mean making sure they are resilient, fully trained and properly equipped. To do that, we must create an environment where everyone can flourish -- rid of the scourge of sexual assault and suicide."
Sen. McCain, leading off the questions, asked Fanning how many U.S. troops are now serving in Iraq.
"I understand the number to be about 4,500," Fanning replied.
McCain noted that the Americans are serving in Iraq without a Status of Forces Agreement in place. Yet it was the lack of such an agreement that Obama pointed to when he withdrew all U.S. troops from Iraq in 2009, a move that allowed the country to fall apart and ISIS to rise.
"Yet somehow we have now 4,500 uniformed members of the military (in Iraq), yet no one seems to be concerned about the fact that we don't have a Status of Forces Agreement with the Iraqis. I find that curious," McCain said.
McCain also asked Fanning, "Are we winning" the battle to degrade and destroy ISIS/ISIL:
"I think it's too early to tell," Fanning replied. "We clearly are putting a lot of pressure on ISIS, but they are also showing that they can put pressure on us. And they are not contained. But I do think we're making progress."
Fanning pointed to open-source reporting that says 6,400 ISIS fighters have been killed in the last few months. The U.S.-led coalition also has disrupted the terrorists' supply routes and has re-taken the towns of Sinjar and Ramadi.
"But a great deal of work needs to be done," Fanning added. "I do believe it's a long fight."
A reporter asked the White House on Tuesday if the Armed Services Committee has given the administration assurances that sexual orientation will not be an issue during the confirmation process.
"I can't speak to all the conversations between the administration and individual members of the Senate," Earnest responded. "Mr. Fanning was nominated because the president believes that he is the best person to provide good leadership to our men and women in uniform in the United States Army.
"Given his experience, given his character, given his skills as a leader, the president believes that he is the best person for the job. And I think anybody in the United States Senate who is willing to take an impartial look and judge him solely on the merits will reach the same conclusion," Earnest said.