General Martin Dempsey tells House committee that he would consider abandoning Obama’s pledge and send troops to fight Isis in Iraq
General Martin Dempsey and defense secretary Chuck Hagel testify before the House armed services committee about the ongoing fight against Isis. Photograph: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Spencer Ackerman and Raya Jalabi in New York
Thursday 13 November 2014 14.22 EST
The top-ranking officer in the American military said on Thursday that the US is actively considering the direct use of troops in the toughest upcoming fights against the Islamic State (Isis) in Iraq, less than a week after Barack Obama doubled troop levels there.
General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, indicated to the House of Representatives armed services committee that the strength of Isis relative to the Iraqi army may be such that he would recommend abandoning Obama’s oft-repeated pledge against returning US ground troops to combat in Iraq.
Retaking the critical city of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest, and re-establishing the border between Iraq and Syria that Isis has erased “will be fairly complex terrain” for the Iraqi security forces that the US is once again supporting, Dempsey acknowledged.
“I’m not predicting at this point that I would recommend that those forces in Mosul and along the border would need to be accompanied by US forces, but we’re certainly considering it,” he said.
As Dempsey and the US defense secretary, Chuck Hagel, testified, Isis released a new audio message purported to be from its self-proclaimed leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, an apparent refutation of suspicions that Baghdadi was killed or critically injured in air strikes over the weekend.
A video explainer discussing the mysterious leader of Islamic State (Isis), the militant group that has seized swathes of Syria and Iraq since June.
With last week’s ordered US troop increases, designed to aid Iraqi campaign planning against Isis and to prop up 12 Iraqi and Kurdish brigades, US troop levels in Iraq will soon stand at 3,000.
Even with potential US involvement in ground combat looming, Dempsey and Hagel said further troop increases would be “modest” and not on the order of the 150,000 US troops occupying Iraq at the height of the 2003-2011 war.
“I just don’t foresee a circumstance when it would be in our interest to take this fight on ourselves with a large military contingent,” Dempsey said.
But should the Iraqi military prove unwilling to take back “al-Anbar province and Ninewa province” – the majority of territory in Iraq seized by Isis – or should the new Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, exclude Sunnis from power, “I will have to adjust my recommendations,” Dempsey said.
Dempsey has previously described Mosul as potentially the “decisive” battle of the war against Isis, an assessment backed by General Lloyd Austin, the US Central Command chief who is running the war. Austin signaled last month that an Iraqi-led campaign was months away, owing to insufficient combat prowess on the Iraqis’ part.
Representative Buck McKeon, the retiring California Republican who chairs the panel, said that he would not support a congressional authorization for the war against Isis that ruled out direct US ground combat.
“I will not support sending our military into harm’s way with their arms tied behind their backs,” McKeon said, predicting that an authorization explicitly preventing ground combat would be “DOA in Congress”.
Hagel said that he did not “know specifically what they will propose” in terms of language for the authorization, which Obama said he would seek after last week’s midterm elections drubbing which has handed the Republicans control of Congress.
Dempsey and Hagel were more definitive about a looming expansion of the US air war, which has delivered approximately 800 air strikes since August. Hagel told the panel that “the tempo and intensity of our coalition’s air campaign will accelerate” as the Iraqi forces “build strength” under renewed US mentorship.
Over the past week, US officials have indicated openness to adjusting or revising a strategy against Isis in Iraq and Syria that has come under increasing domestic criticism and battlefield pressures. Syrian rebels whom the US hopes to transform into an anti-Isis proxy force have been recently routed, and have expressed frustration with what they consider insufficient US interest in helping them combat their primary adversary, the dictator Bashar al-Assad.
On Wednesday, US Central Command began a 10-day summit with delegates from over 30 partner nations to “further develop and refine military campaign plans”, it said.
Hagel has reportedly expressed concern to the White House that its perceived lack of clarity about Assad’s future was becoming an obstacle to its planned Syrian recruitment, which has yet to proceed in earnest. While Hagel did not on Thursday advocate expanding war goals to include toppling Assad, he conceded that without a rival government to back or an existing ground force to work with, “our military aims in Syria are limited to isolating and destroying [Isis’s] safe havens”.
Representative Walter Jones, a North Carolina Republican who opposes a new congressional war authorization, said Hagel’s rhetoric about Isis was reminiscent of 2002 arguments for invading Iraq.
“It looks like we’re going down the same road that Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told us that we had to do,” Jones said.
In a 17-minute audio recording released online on Thursday, which could not be independently verified, Isis leader Baghdadi cited Obama’s deployment orders for an additional 1,500 troops in Iraq last week as evidence that the US campaign was failing.
Baghdadi announced the “expansion of the Islamic State” to Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Egypt, Libya and Algeria, claiming that Isis has accepted the pledges of allegiance from various groups within those countries. His proclamation came after Egypt’s most active jihadi group, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, pledged allegiance to Isis on Monday, becoming one of the largest militant groups to affirm its loyalty to Isis outside of Baghdadi’s strongholds in Syria and Iraq. This could be an indication that the recording was made as recently as this week.
Before Congress, Dempsey pleaded for “strategic patience” with a US war strategy expected to last for years.
“Progress purchases patience,” Dempsey said.