Army Gen. Martin Dempsey said Tuesday that he would recommend deploying U.S. ground troops with the Iraqi army to combat the Islamic State if local forces fail to make progress under cover of U.S. airstrikes.
The White House has ruled out "boots on the ground," but Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that his recommendations to President Obama if the current strategy doesn't work "may include the use of U.S. military ground forces."
Dempsey said the U.S. was currently focused on supporting Iraqi forces against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) with airstrikes, and building a coalition of nations willing to support the campaign.
"My view at this point is that this coalition is the appropriate way forward. I believe that will prove true," he said. "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."
If it came to a recommendation of ground troops, Dempsey suggested that the first units likely would be Special Forces troops operating forward with the Iraqis to call in airstrikes.
Dempsey acknowledged that his position could put him at odds with Obama.
"His stated policy is that we will not have U.S. forces in ground combat," Dempsey said. "He has told me as well to come back to him on a case-by-case basis."
The White House and the Pentagon have also ruled out having U.S. troops embedded with maneuver units of the Iraqi national security forces to call in airstrikes in close combat, but Dempsey said he could foresee the use of Air Force Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTACs).
"If we get to the point where we need JTACs, I'll recommend that," Dempsey said, while stressing that U.S. pilots thus far have been able to distinguish between targets from the air. "There may be times when I think that is necessary."
In testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Dempsey and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel for the first time gave details on how Obama's strategy to "degrade and destroy" ISIL would be carried out.
"This is an Iraq first strategy," Dempsey said. He described a movement against ISIL, with Kurdish peshmerga forces pressing from the north and Iraqi forces advancing from the south with the support of U.S. airpower and advisers embedded at the headquarters and brigade levels.
Dempsey said the Iraqis had about 50 brigades in place around Baghdad and several of those units were now prepared to go on the offense.
On Syria, Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, head of U.S. Central Command, has firmed up plans to attack ISIL's Syrian strongholds and will outline them to Obama in meetings Wednesday at CentCom's headquarters in Tampa, Fla., Hagel said.
Hagel said that Obama "has the constitutional and statutory authority to use military force against ISIL in Syria as well as Iraq, and CentCom is refining and finalizing those plans, which Gen. Austin will brief to the President."
Hagel said that Austin's plan "includes targeted actions against ISIL safe havens in Syria -- including its command and control, logistics capabilities, and infrastructure." Hagel said that he and Dempsey had signed off on Austin's plan.
Hagel also noted that Obama was meeting Tuesday with retired Marine. Gen. John Allen, now an administration special envoy in forming a global coalition to counter ISIL.
"[Allen] will be the administration's point man to coordinate coalition contributions and to build support within the region. He will work closely with Gen. Austin to ensure that coalition efforts are aligned across all elements of our strategy," Hagel said.
Dempsey added that "Allen certainly is going to focus on the tribes," meaning the Sunni tribes west and north of Baghdad in areas now under the control of ISIL. As a commander in Iraq, Allen was involved in the "Sunni awakening" in which the tribes turned against Al Qaeda in Iraq, the predecessor of ISIL.
Dempsey said he expected Allen to use his previous relationships with the tribes to help in forming Iraqi National Guard units in Anbar province.
The main focus of the Syria strategy was getting Congress to approve $500 million for the training and equipping of 5,000 troops from the "moderate" Syrian opposition to combat ISIL and the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Hagel and Dempsey said.
Eventually, "we need a ground game in Syria," Hagel said, and the opposition Free Syrian Army offered the best opportunity for creating such a force.
"We have now secured support from Saudi Arabia to host the training program," Hagel said. Dempsey said it would take 3-5 months to set up the program and 8-12 months to train about 5,000 fighters.
"The package of assistance that we initially provide would consist of small arms, vehicles, and basic equipment like communications, as well as tactical and strategic training," Hagel said.
"As these forces prove their effectiveness on the battlefield, we would be prepared to provide increasingly sophisticated types of assistance to the most trusted commanders and capable forces," Hagel said.
The testimony of Hagel and Dempsey was greeted with close questioning and doubts by senators from both sides of the aisle.
Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, questioned whether the U.S. would be prepared to eliminate Assad's air forces if they attacked the units trained and equipped by the U.S.
"It seems to me we have to neutralize Assad's air assets," McCain said. In response, Hagel said "we're not there yet." Dempsey added that "I'll defer that challenge to the future."
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said that Dempsey and Hagel had outlined a strategy that would take years to complete and would require Congressional authorization. Hagel insisted that Obama had authority under the Authorization for the Use of Military Force enacted after the 9/11 attacks but would welcome Congressional approval.
Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, said that the administration was using the world "war" to describe the strategy, and only Congress had the power to declare war.
Sen. Joe Mancin, D-West Virginia, said that going back to war in Iraq and then in Syria after 13 years of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan "just doesn't make sense to me" or to his constituents. "It makes no sense to me and I can't sell it," Mancin said.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Alabama, questioned whether the Iraqi forces would fight after they collapsed against the initial advance of ISIL forces out of Syria. "Yes, they will fight," Dempsey said, if they are well led and believe they are serving an inclusive government in Baghdad.
Dempsey said "this won't look like a shock and awe campaign," but it will be a "persistent campaign. This will require a sustained effort over a long period of time," Dempsey said.
The 162 airstrikes in Iraq thus far have been limited to the goals of protecting U.S. personnel and facilities, and protecting Iraqi minority groups and key facilities such as the Mosul dam.
President Obama said last week that it was now time to "go on some offense," and CentCom on Monday said that "airstrike southwest of Baghdad was the first strike taken as part of our expanded efforts beyond protecting our own people and humanitarian missions to hit ISIL targets as Iraqi forces go on offense."
CentCom said that an ISIL fighting position that was firing on the Iraqi army positions southwest of Baghdad was destroyed.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at email@example.com