The Cable

Dempsey Outlines Scenario for U.S. Combat Troops in Iraq

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey told lawmakers Thursday that his recommendation about the number and type of U.S. troops needed in Iraq to fight the so-called Islamic State could change depending on the political situation in Baghdad. Dempsey said a number of assumptions underpin the current U.S. military strategy, which ...

AFP PHOTO/Brendan SMIALOWSKI
AFP PHOTO/Brendan SMIALOWSKI

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey told lawmakers Thursday that his recommendation about the number and type of U.S. troops needed in Iraq to fight the so-called Islamic State could change depending on the political situation in Baghdad.

Dempsey said a number of assumptions underpin the current U.S. military strategy, which does not call for large-scale deployments of U.S. ground troops.

For example, it’s assumed the government of Iraq will be inclusive, encouraging participation from Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. It is also assumed that the Iraqi security forces will be willing to take back Anbar province, which is largely controlled by the self-proclaimed Islamic State with help from local Sunni militias and Baath Party loyalists.

"If I’m wrong about those assumptions, I’ll have to adjust my recommendations," Dempsey told the House Armed Services Committee. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel testified with him.

Dempsey said his ability to adjust or make new recommendations has never been limited by the White House, and that there was no gap between the recommendations he’s made and the president’s current strategy.

On Friday the Pentagon said President Barack Obama authorized sending an additional 1,500 U.S. personnel to Iraq. The previous cap was 1,600 U.S. troops, with roughly 1,400 already deployed, to advise and assist Iraqi security forces in their fight to halt the advances of the Islamic State.

The new troops will be under the same no-combat restrictions already in place. And the 630 new troops that will be performing the advise-and-assist mission, primarily in Anbar in the west of the country, will embed with Iraqi units at the brigade level and above, same as the advisors already doing the mission.

This could change too, said Dempsey, as the battles against the Islamic State become more difficult.

When it’s time for Iraqi security forces to retake Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, or territory along the border with Syria, it might be necessary to place American troops closer to the front lines, Dempsey said.

"I’m not predicting they’ll need to be accompanied by U.S. forces, but we’re certainly considering it," he said.

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates is one advocate of embedding U.S. troops below the brigade level in the fight against the Islamic State.

"It’s hard for me to see how they retake ground from ISIS – for example, to retake the city of Mosul – without some pretty close-in, Western, including American, assistance, advice and training," Gates told Marketplace last week.

Lawmakers received testimony from Dempsey and Hagel as they consider a White House request for $5.6 billion in additional funding to fight the Islamic State.

Of this, $1.6 billion is to establish the Iraq Train and Equip Fund, which would pay for training both Iraqi and Kurdish forces. Hagel said the U.S. plans to only release 60 percent — or $1 billion — initially. The remaining $600 million will depend on Iraq and coalition partners contributing the same amount, Hagel said.

Congress is expected to OK the funding during the current lame duck session, but not without some concerns.

"While I support each of these requests, the totality has left many of my colleagues, and many of the American people, concerned that we are signing up for the War in Iraq all over again," said Rep. Adam Smith, the leading Democrat on the committee, in his opening statement. "We should be clear that what we are doing is not a repeat of the Iraq War. We are not, and should not, be deploying large numbers of troops to undertake ground combat in Iraq.  Doing so is unnecessary and would likely be highly counterproductive."

Kate Brannen is deputy managing editor at Just Security and a contributor to Foreign Policy, where she previously worked as a senior reporter. Twitter: @K8brannen

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