Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey walks to his seat prior to a press briefing with reporters at the Pentagon on Thursday.
Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey walks to his seat prior to a press briefing with reporters at the Pentagon on Thursday. // Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

Dempsey Says Iraq Can’t Beat ISIL, Won’t Rule Out More U.S. Troops

The Iraqi Army won’t be able to regain territory lost to extremist Islamic fighters without launching a “really broad” military campaign, and they’re going to need a lot of help doing it, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey said Thursday.

Iraqi soldiers are “stiffening,” he said, especially in and around Baghdad, but on their own are not able to retake large areas of the north and west that fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, seized in recent weeks. Dempsey said ISIL fighters are struggling to keep control of those areas. “They’re stretched right now — stretched to control what they’ve gained and stretched across their logistics lines of communication,” he said, at a Pentagon briefing with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.

“If you’re asking me, will the Iraqis at some point be able to go back on the offensive to recapture the part of Iraq that they’ve lost, I think that’s a really broad campaign quality question. Probably not by themselves,” Dempsey said. “Does it mean we would have to provide kinetic support? I’m not suggesting that that’s the direction this is headed. But, at any military campaign, you would want to develop multiple access to squeeze ISIL. You’d like to squeeze them from the south and west, you’d like to squeeze them the north, and you’d like to squeeze them from Baghdad. And that’s a campaign that has to be developed.”

“But the first step in developing that campaign is to determine whether we have a reliable Iraqi partner that is committed to growing their country into something that all Iraqis will be willing to participate in. If the answer to that is no, then the future is pretty bleak.”

Hagel said for now the United States mission in Iraq is twofold – protect the U.S. embassy and other facilities in Baghdad, including part of the airport, and assessing and advising the Iraqi security forces. There is a Joint Command Center set up in Baghdad, and now another one just opened in Irbil, in the Kurdish-held north.

“Both the chairman and I are getting some assessments back — early assessments through Gen. [Lloyd] Austin who, as you know, is overseeing all of this [as commander of U.S. Central Command]. We won’t have the full complement of all those assessments for a while, by that is in process, ongoing,” Hagel said.

Dempsey said even though the U.S. has a better idea of the situation on the ground, “the complexity, though, is the intermingling of Sunni groups that had formerly opposed the Iraqi government in any case. They have intermingled with the ISIL groups in particular. And that’s going to be a tough—a tough challenge, to separate them, if we were to take a decision to strike.”

“Now, you might say, does it matter? They’re attacking Baghdad; does it really matter? I think it does matter. I think it matters for the future of Iraq—which allows me to roll back to the place I continue to start: Unless the Iraqi government gets the message out that it really does intend to allow participation by all groups, everything we’re talking about makes no difference.”

And it’s not just Sunni fighters joining with ISIL that’s making things messy in Iraq, Dempsey said. While Iraqi forces are capable of defending Baghdad, “they would be challenged to go on the offense—mostly logistically challenged—and that the call that the Ayatollah Sistani put out for volunteers is being answered and it complicates the situation, frankly, a bit,” Dempsey said.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is expected to meet with parliament on July 8 to begin the process of forming a new government, after elections were held on April. This week, Maliki indicated that he wanted to stop ISIL’s advance before getting down to the business of forming a new, more inclusive government that represents both Shiite and Sunni Muslims.

That’s the primary condition of President Barack Obama’s offer of help – though the delay doesn’t appear to be of concern to the White House just yet.

Dempsey said that as Obama has added more U.S. troops on the ground, there are still no plans to re-enter another war in Iraq. “There’s this kind of narrative of mission creep. That’s the wrong phrase. The issue is a mission match. We will match the resources we apply with the authorities and responsibilities that go with them based on the mission we undertake, and that is to be determined,” he said.

“This is not 2003, it’s not 2006. This is a very different approach than we’ve taken in the past. I mean, assessing and advising and enabling are very different words than attacking, defeating and disrupting. We may get to that point if our national interests drive us there, if ISIL becomes such a threat to the homeland that the president of the United States with our advice decides that we have to take direct action. I’m just suggesting to you we’re not there yet.”

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