JCS chairman off the reservation on Iraq ground troops
General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, contradicted his commander in chief regarding the use of American ground troops in Iraq.
Speaking at a congressional hearing, Dempsey posed possible scenarios where he would go to the president and ask that ground troops be deployed to assist the Iraqi army.
The president has outlined a limited role of support for the U.S., including providing arms and training for another 5,000 rebel fighters this year in Syria, continuing a campaign of airstrikes that began in August and stationing troops at command centers in Iraq to help Iraqi forces coordinate their attacks.
Mr. Hagel said the administration envisions 1,600 American troops on the ground in Iraq.
Those troops are not supposed to be engaged in combat roles, but Gen. Dempsey seemed to open the door to an expansion of their mission, saying he would go to Mr. Obama and ask for combat troops if he thought it would help the U.S. achieve its goal of reversing the Islamic State’s gains.
“An example: If the Iraqi security forces and the [Kurdish peshmerga] were at some point ready 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,” Gen. 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.”
The general did acknowledge that the pilots and aviators conducting the airstrikes right now are engaged in combat, and said if some of them were shot down over Islamic State territory, the U.S. would mount rescue missions that could use combat troops.
Gen. Dempsey’s comments sent the rest of the administration scrambling, with Mr. Obama’s spokesman assuring reporters traveling with Mr. Obama aboard Air Force One that nothing has changed in the president’s thinking.
Gen. Dempsey’s own spokesman, Col. Ed Thomas, issued a statement saying the general was envisioning ways to help call in airstrikes, not to be part of ground combat units marching alongside Iraqi troops.
Dempsey's walk back of his clear, unambiguous comments about ground troops is indicative of an administration terrified of the political consequences of sending combat troops back into Iraq. Despite the fact that almost no one in Washington believes we can defeat ISIS without committing tens of thousands of troops, the fiction that we can bomb ISIS out of existence remains.
Retaking major cities like Mosul is far beyond the capabilities of the Iraqi army. Such specialized urban warfare takes training and coordination that would tax the abilities of any army in the region. The US may be forced to go in simply because no one else can do it, and the job of defeating ISIS can't be accomplished without troops on the ground.
That reality will be pressed home to the president the longer the war goes on.