Pentagon: US Ground Troops May Join Iraqis in Combat Against Isis

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and General Martin Dempsey say US is ‘at war’ with Isis, which will ‘threaten our homeland’

Kashmiri demonstrators hold up a flag of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) during a demonstration in downtown Srinagar on July 18, 2014

The US defense secretary told senators on Tuesday that America is “at war” with the Islamic State (Isis), while the senior US military officer suggested US ground troops might directly join Iraqis in combat.

Stripping away an earlier reluctance by the Obama administration to declare its airstrikes against Isis a full-blown war, Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel said Isis will “directly threaten our homeland and our allies” unless the US confronts the jihadist army militarily.

“This will not be an easy or brief effort,” Hagel said, who defined victory as “when we complete the mission of degrading, destroying and defeating” Isis.

A day after US warplanes expanded the war south-west of Baghdad, Hagel and General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, defended Barack Obama’s newest war before the Senate armed services committee, many of whose members have wanted Obama to take the US into war in Syria even before the rise of Isis.

On Wednesday, Hagel said, General Lloyd Austin, the commanding officer of US Central Command, will brief Obama on upcoming “targeted actions against [Isis] safe havens in Syria”, the clearest signal yet of an imminent expansion of an air war Hagel said would “not be restrained by a border in name only”. On the targeting list is Isis “command and control, logistics capabilities, and infrastructure”.

Dempsey, who has long been reluctant to re-introduce US forces into Middle Eastern wars, signaled that some of the 1,600 US military “advisers” Obama deployed to Iraq since June may directly fight Isis, despite Obama’s frequent public assurances that US ground troops will not engage in combat.

“If we reach the point where I believe our advisors should accompany Iraqi troops on attacks against specific [Isis] targets, I will recommend that to the president,” Dempsey said, preferring the term “close combat advising”.

Dempsey said the air war in Iraq and Syria “won’t look like a shock and awe campaign”, but will instead be “persistent and sustainable”. He envisaged no end for it, but said Isis’ ultimate defeat will be a “generational” effort during which “moderate” Muslims abandon its ideology – raising questions about what the US military’s actual endpoint will be in pursuing the goal of “degrading and ultimately defeating” Isis, Obama’s stated goal.

Hagel stopped short of saying Isis poses an imminent threat to the US, something intelligence agencies consider unlikely in the near term and a typical, if fungible, threshold for launching a war. Hagel instead called Isis “an immediate threat to American citizens in Iraq”, many of whom Obama has sent there in response to Isis, “and our interests in the Middle East”, with the prospect of domestic attacks against the US left as a hypothetical.

Hagel and Dempsey’s testimony came as the House of Representatives prepares to vote, as early as Wednesday, on an amendment to a must-pass funding bill that would give the Pentagon authorities, but not money, to train and arm Syrian opposition members, providing what the administration hopes will be a non-American ground force capable of taking territory away from Isis.It contrasted with Hagel’s 21 August statement at the Pentagon that Isis poses “an imminent threat to every interest we have, whether it’s in Iraq or anywhere else”. Hawkish senator James Inhofe, the top Republican on the panel, praised Hagel’s “honesty” in the August assessment. Asked by Inhofe, Hagel nevertheless said he agreed with his earlier statement.

Hagel pledged to “monitor them closely to ensure that weapons do not fall into the hands of radical members of the opposition”, Isis, dictator Bashar Assad’s regime or “other extremist groups”. The most trusted and effective opposition forces will receive “increasingly sophisticated types of assistance”, which Hagel did not define.

He acknowledged “there will always be risk in a program like this” – Isis has already captured weapons believed to be provided by the US to Syrian opposition figures – but argued the threat from Isis justified the risk.

Isis is estimated to have as many as 31,500 fighters as combat, while the Pentagon estimates that 5,000 Syrian rebels could be trained in the first year of the training program.

“Five thousand is not going to be able to turn the tide, we recognize that,” Hagel said.

Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican and the most senior hawk in the Senate, said the administration’s strategy suffered from a “fundamental fallacy”: presuming the Syrian opposition the US wants to train will prioritize fighting Isis instead of fighting Assad, their primary enemy.

McCain pressed Hagel to clarify whether the US will target Assad air forces should they attack the Syrian rebels under American charge. Hagel declined to give that assurance, saying, “We’re not there yet, but our focus is on Isil,” another name for Isis.

Dempsey – whose resignation McCain has called for, owing to the general’s reluctance to use the US military against Assad – conceded that “if we were to take [fighting] Assad off the table, we’d have a much more difficult time” persuading Syrians to join the coalition, but said the administration nevertheless has an “Isil-first strategy”.

Spencer Ackerman writes for The Guardian from Washington, DC.

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