KUWAIT CITY — New Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter, seeking to put his imprimatur on the U.S. fight against the Islamic State, has summoned about 30 high-ranking military commanders and diplomats to Kuwait for an unusual session to review war plans and strategy.
The summit, which is scheduled to take place Monday, will include the U.S. military’s combatant commanders for the Middle East, Africa and Europe, the three-star Army general in charge of the war in Iraq and Syria, the head of the secretive Joint Special Operations Command, several ambassadors in the region and other key players from Washington.
Defense officials said Carter called the gathering immediately upon taking office last week so he could more fully familiarize himself with the strategic underpinnings of the U.S.-led international campaign against the Islamic State. They said Carter was not necessarily seeking to change the fundamentals of the strategy, but they made clear that he would ask hard questions and press commanders and diplomats to justify their current approach.
“This is absolutely not coming from a place of his concern about the strategy,” said a senior defense official involved in planning the summit, speaking on the condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the Pentagon. “He’s just the kind of guy who likes to dig.”
The senior official said the summit will focus less on basic military operations and more on complex issues such as sectarian political divisions in Iraq, the spread of Islamic State affiliates into North Africa and Afghanistan, the slow pace of training and equipping Syrian rebels, and fissures within the U.S.-led military coalition.
In a sign of how Carter intends to challenge his commanders’ thinking, he has banned them from making any PowerPoint presentations — a backbone feature of most U.S. military briefings.
Carter arrived in Kuwait after a two-day visit to Afghanistan, where he met with President Ashraf Ghani and toured U.S. bases in Kabul and Kandahar. He said he will soon make recommendations to President Obama about possibly slowing the pace of the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan over the next two years.
Although the war against the Islamic State will occupy much of Carter’s agenda as defense secretary, he is not scheduled to visit Iraq during his inaugural trip as Pentagon chief.
About 2,600 U.S. troops have deployed to Iraq since last summer. Thousands more are based at permanent military installations in Kuwait, including Camp Arifjan and Ali al-Salem Air Base.
Speaking to reporters en route to the region, Carter said he wanted to visit some of the 10,600 U.S. troops in Afghanistan as quickly as he could after taking office, while also squeezing in time to meet in the field with commanders and diplomats involved in the campaign against the Islamic State. He is scheduled to return to Washington on Tuesday.
“This is my first week, and I’ve got a lot to do back in Washington,” he said. “And I wanted to go and return as quickly as I could and still learn what I think I needed to learn, and this is the way to do it.”