Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee on the threat of the Islamic State, on Sept. 16, 2014.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee on the threat of the Islamic State, on Sept. 16, 2014. Department of Defense Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Daniel Hinton.

Dempsey Says US Ground Forces Possible If Coalition Strategy Fails

Top military advisors give the president their best advice based on the situation on the ground. That may mean ‘no boots on the ground’ complicates things. By Molly O’Toole

President Barack Obama has repeated, definitively, that he won’t be sending a large number of U.S. troops back into ground combat in Iraq. But on Tuesday, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said he’d make a recommendation for the introduction of U.S. forces into ground combat if the rapidly evolving threat from the Islamic State requires it.

“The role the United States military is taking is, in my judgment, appropriate,” Gen. Martin Dempsey said in his opening statement at a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee. But he said “if we reach the point where I believe our advisers should accompany Iraqi troops on attacks against specific ISIL targets, I’ll recommend that to the president.”

Dempsey said he supports the president’s multi-faceted strategy and believes it will prove to be the way forward. “But if it fails to be true and if there are threats to the United States, then I, of course, would go back to the president and make a recommendation that may include the use of U.S. military ground forces.”

Lawmakers on the committee questioned Dempsey and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel during their testimony Tuesday on whether the president’s plan to defeat the Islamic State can succeed without a more substantial commitment of American forces.

At minimum, there is growing concern over whether Obama will permit U.S. troops sent to Iraq as advisors to go out on patrol with Iraqi Security Forces to help call in air strikes and provide other tactical support. In that capacity, it could prove harder for the administration to continue labeling those forces as something other than “combat” troops.  

As Obama’s top military and defense officials, Dempsey and Hagel must present the president their best military advice based on the situation on the ground, regardless of politics back at home. But Dempsey merely raising the potential of military advisors engaging in combat – even in response to a hypothetical question from Republicans in Congress – complicates the White House effort to drum up support for its “whole of government” approach. It also plays directly into the hawks’ political narrative of Obama’s foreign policy as dangerously naïve and indecisive.

(Related: Obama Has a Strategy for the Islamic State But He Better Have a Plan B)

“The president’s strategy to defeat ISIS is fundamentally detached from the reality on the ground,” said Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “It will take an army to beat an army. But instead the president presented a limited counterterrorism strategy…I’m not advocating for an army division or combat elements on the ground. But it is foolhardy for the Obama administration to tie the hands and so firmly rule out the possibility of air controllers and special operators on the ground to direct airstrikes and advise fighter forces.”

“It sends the wrong message to our troops, to the enemy and to partners.”

The Defense Department announced the first offensive strikes against the Islamic State southwest of Baghdad, in an area that was known as the “Triangle of Death’ during the Iraq War, on Sunday and Monday. Hagel said U.S. Central Command leaders are finalizing plans to expand the air campaign into Syria, including targeting the group’s safe havens, command and control centers, and infrastructure.

Hagel said the department is in “complete agreement” that the U.S. -- in concert with international partners -- must take action, and that the strategy outlined by Obama last week is “the right approach.”

But when lawmakers repeatedly questioned Dempsey on the plan, he reiterated that his military recommendations would come on a case-by-case basis, in response to an evolving situation on the ground.

“In the case of our contributions in Iraq right now, the airmen … are very much in a combat role,” Dempsey said. “The folks on the ground are in very much a combat advisory role. They are not participating in direct combat. There is no intention for them to do so.”

“I’ve mentioned, though, that if I found that circumstance evolving that I would of course change my recommendation.”

Dempsey floated an example of such a circumstance: If the Iraqi Security Forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga were poised to retake Mosul.

“A mission that I would find to be extraordinarily complex -- it could very well be part of that particular mission to provide close combat advising or accompanying for that mission,” Dempsey said. “But for the day-to-day activities that I anticipate will evolve over time, I don’t see it to be necessary right now."

For now, Hagel and Dempsey urged lawmakers to pass legislation giving the Pentagon new authority for a program to train and equip vetted members of the Syrian opposition. On Monday, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., introduced an amendment to the continuing resolution to fund the government past Sept. 30 that would provide the Pentagon this authority. The House allocated six hours on Tuesday to debate the measure, which Congress is expected to pass by Thursday, when it plans to break until the November midterm elections.

(Read More: House Republicans Find Obama's Plans in Syria 'Unrealistic')

Hagel noted that Saudi Arabia has offered to host and provide financial support for the program, which the Defense Department says would produce an opposition force of roughly 5,000 over a year’s time -- following a “rigorous vetting process,” Hagel pledged.

“The best counterweights to ISIL are local forces and the people of the area,” he said. “There will always be risk in a program like this, but we believe that risk is justified by the imperative of destroying ISIL – and the necessity of having capable partners on the ground in Syria.”

These opposition forces face an Islamic State force in Syria last estimated at 31,000 strong, according to Dempsey. U.S. military strategists made an initial recommendation that an “optimal force” of some 12,000 would be required to restore the border between Syria and Iraq. Dempsey said he is confident that Iraqi and Perhmerga fighters can defeat the Islamic State in Iraq, but he continued, “I have concerns about the Syria side of this for obvious reasons.”

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said members of Congress also have concerns that the train-and-equip program, and the president’s overall strategy, would be “inadequate.” He was echoed by Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss.: “I want to win. I want to defeat ISIS,” he said. “But I’m not sure we have a plan that can be successful.” Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., after similarly questioning the effectiveness of the strategy, told Dempsey and Hagel: “I can’t sell it.”

Hagel reiterated to the senators on the committee: “This will not be an easy or brief effort.”

Dempsey cautioned that the U.S. military not could be a fix-all. At the same time, he said inaction was impossible.

“We don’t have a choice,” Dempsey said. “If I could wall up the continental United States and assure you the people … were going to be safe … I would.”

The best practice, he said, which has guided and will continue to guide U.S. national security policy, is: “do less ourselves, more with partners, and enable others.”

“If we fail to address all three, we’re back to doing it ourselves.”