Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, right, accompanied by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, briefs reporters July 3 at the Pentagon. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP)
The military’s top officer on Thursday issued a bleak assessment of the crisis in Iraq, saying that nation’s armed forces are probably incapable of regaining control of areas captured by Islamic extremists and the U.S. may need to expand its military support mission there.
“Will the Iraqis at some point be able to go back on the offensive to recapture the part of Iraq that they’ve lost? Probably not by themselves,” Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, told reporters at the Pentagon.
Initial intelligence reports from the 200 U.S. military advisers on the ground in Iraq now suggest that Iraqi security forces “are stiffening, that they are capable of defending Baghdad ... [but] would be challenged to go on the offense, mostly logistically challenged,” Dempsey said.
Dempsey flatly rejected the suggestion that the U.S. mission and the total of about 750 U.S. troops inside Iraq now is starting to build toward something resembling Operation Iraqi Freedom.
The American troops on the ground have a limited, two-pronged mission — to provide security for U.S. personnel at the embassy and at the Baghdad airport, and to work alongside the Iraqi army to both assess its capabilities and offer advice in the fight against the group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL.
“It’s not 2003, it’s not 2006,” Dempsey said. “This is a very different approach than we’ve taken in the past. Assessing and advising and enabling are very different words that 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.
“We’re not there yet,” he said.
The U.S. special operations forces personnel in Iraq now are military advisers and are “categorically not involved in combat operations — they are literally assessing, that is their task. If the assessment comes back and reveals that it would be beneficial ... to put the advisers in a different role, we will consult with the president ... and we’ll move ahead,” Dempsey said.
ISIL, estimated to have about 10,000 fighters across Syria and Iraq, has consolidated control over large swaths of territory during the past several weeks and recently declared the formation of their own Islamic state, or caliphate.
But Dempsey said they are showing signs of weakening. “They are stretched right now, stretched to control what they’ve gained and stretched across their logistics and lines of communication,” he said.
Dempsey said ISIL’s defeat of the Iraqi army in June was not a traditional military victory but instead reflected the group’s exploitation of the sectarian split between Sunnis and Shiites.
The crisis is rooted in politics, specifically the Shiite-run Baghdad government’s failure to draw support from Sunnis, Dempsey said.
“It wasn’t a fight. [Iraq security forces] didn’t collapse in the face of a fight. They collapsed in the face of a future that didn’t hold out any hope for them. It’s different than collapsing in the face of a fight,” Dempsey said.
Defeating ISIL now would require a complex military campaign, but the U.S. will not consider extensive military support for the Iraqis until they resolve their political problems.
“In any military campaign, you would have to develop multiple axes to squeeze ISIL,” Dempsey said. “You’d like to squeeze them from the south and west, you’d like to squeeze them from the north and you’d like to squeeze them from Baghdad. That is a campaign that has to be developed.
“But the first step in developing that campaign is determining 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 future is pretty bleak,” Dempsey said.
For the U.S., the threat posed by ISIL in Iraq today is part of a larger challenge that likely will last for many years, Dempsey said.
“The ideology that stretches from south Asia and across the Arab world into north and west Africa, the ideology which is essentially an anti-Western, very conservative, religious and in some cases radically violent ideology ... we’re stuck with that for the foreseeable future — a generation or two,” Dempsey said.
The most important question for the U.S., he said, is: “How can we deal with this long-term threat without having to repeat what we did in 2003 and 2006?”