The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff estimates the U.S.-led fight against Islamic militants in Iraq and Syria will last up to four years.
Army Gen. Martin Dempsey made the estimate on Wednesday during an interview at Atlantic Media's Defense One conference in Washington, D.C. about the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.
The U.S. started launching airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria to thwart the organization's advances in some areas, though the militants still control vast parts of northern and western Iraq and eastern Syria.
Under Secretary of Intelligence Mike Vickers later agreed with Dempsey's estimate warning about the time it will take to train a force inside Iraq and Syria to defeat ISIS.
Dempsey first mentioned the timeline in regards to the challenges the military faces in funding the many conflicts across the globe. He listed the deployment of more American troops to Europe and Africa, as well as the "protracted probably three or four year campaign in the Middle East."
The U.S. has about 1,400 troops in Iraq, most of which are serving as advisers to Iraqi and Kurdish forces in Baghdad and Irbil. President Barack Obama this month authorized the deployment of up to 1,500 more troops to better advise -- and train -- Iraqi forces. The additional service members are expected to deploy to the country over the next 30 to 45 days.
Republicans such as Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon of California have criticized Obama for refusing to authorize troops to serve in combat roles in the region.
"How can you successfully execute the mission you've been given – to 'degrade and ultimately destroy' ISIL – when some of your best options are taken off the table?" the retiring chairman of the House Armed Services Committee asked Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel at a hearing last week.
Dempsey, who earlier this week returned from a trip to the Middle East, where he met with senior Iraqi political and military leaders, defended the plan of having American troops advise and assist Iraqi forces, which he said have conducted both humanitarian and ground operations.
The general pushed back against criticism that the administration doesn't have a strategy for the mission, known as Operation Inherent Resolve. He cited a 10-page document from the National Security Administration, a 503-page document from combatant commanders, and some 190 planners from 30 nations working at Central Command in Tampa.
"But here's what I'll tell you about the strategy – it's going to change," he said. "The objective is not going to change ... I'm not obsessing so much about what's in the middle."
When discussing Iraq, Dempsey said, "This is my third shot at Iraq, and that's probably a poor choice of words."
He also blamed himself for not doing a better job of articulating to lawmakers and the public the damage that across-the-board budget cuts will have on the military. "At some level, I haven't been persuasive enough," he said.
The Obama administration has requested $5.6 billion to conduct military operations against the extremist group. Most of the money would go to the Defense Department.
That's in addition to the Pentagon's fiscal 2015 defense budget of about $554 billion, including a base budget of $496 billion and a war budget of about $59 billion. Congress hasn't yet approved the spending plan for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1.
The Defense Department's proposed spending plan for coming years is tens of billions of dollars more than the budget caps set by the Budget Control Act -- a trend Dempsey suggested is likely to continue. "We need additional topline for the emerging and new requirements," he said, referring to the budget limit.
Dempsey's comments regarding the length of the conflict in Iraq and Syria echoed those made by his successor as Army Chief of Staff, Gen. Raymond Odierno, who in a previous panel said, "We believe that's something that will go on for quite some time -- years, not months."
-- Brendan McGarry can be reached at email@example.com