WASHINGTON — The nation’s top military officer suggested Thursday that the battle between the Iraqi security forces and Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant militants has reached a stalemate, and left open the possibility that much more U.S. military assistance will be needed to roll back the militants.
“After some initial gains and … some pretty significant and rapid advances, [ISIL is] stretched right now; stretched to control what they’ve gained and stretched across their logistics lines of communication,” Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at the Pentagon.
Meanwhile, the Iraqi military’s defenses seem to be improving after folding in the face of ISIL attacks in recent weeks.
“Some initial insights [from U.S. assessment teams on the ground] are that the ISF is stiffening, that they’re capable of defending Baghdad,” Dempsey said.
However, the chairman suggested that it would be difficult for them to roll back ISIL gains.
“They would be challenged to go on the offense,” mostly because of logistical shortcomings, according to Dempsey.
Dempsey’s assessment is that the ISF would “probably not” be able to be able to recapture the territory they lost without outside help, and suggested the door remains open to greater U.S. military involvement.
Right now, the U.S. has about 200 advisers on the ground assessing the security situation in Iraq, as well as ISF and ISIL capabilities. Another 450 or so troops are in country providing security for the U.S. Embassy, the Baghdad International Airport and other facilities.
Dempsey said defending the airport is key to preparing for potential future operations.
“That part … that we need for logistics, resupply, and potentially for evacuation, we are protecting that part of the airport for that purpose,” Dempsey said.
A joint operations center was set up in Baghdad last month. On Thursday, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced that a second has been established in the northern Iraqi city of Irbil.
When asked what the U.S. military might contribute to help the Iraqis launch a major counteroffensive against ISIL, Dempsey said “that’s not a question that we’re prepared to answer just yet.”
Dempsey said the U.S. must first determine whether it has a reliable Iraqi partner that is committed to overcome sectarian differences.
“If the answer to that is no,” he said, “then the future is pretty bleak.”
The chairman said the U.S. military does not envision sending in large numbers of troops like it did in during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. And he emphasized that right now, the mission isn’t a combat one.
“This is a very different approach … than we’ve taken in the past. I mean, assessing and advising and enabling are very different words than attacking, defeating and disrupting,” he said.
Dempsey addressed concerns about potential "mission creep" in Iraq and the possibility of further troop deployments as the advisory effort develops.
“There’s a tendency to think of this as kind of industrial strength, you know, where we’re going to put a mountain of supplies … someplace, and then that’s going to require us to protect it, and then we got to move it forward into the hands of the Iraqis to ensure that they use it and use it responsibly and effectively. And that’s obviously one possibility, but it’s not one that, personally, I think the situation demands,” he said.
If a decision is made to give additional help to the Iraqis, Dempsey envisions the U.S. military contributing “special skills, leadership and niche capabilities that we uniquely possess.” He did not elaborate.
Still, Dempsey would not rule out a major U.S. military effort against ISIL.
“We may get to that point, if our national interests drive us there, if ISIL becomes such a threat to the homeland that the president of the United States decides with our advice that we have to take direct action … [But] we’re not there yet,” he said.
President Barack Obama has said that he is considering airstrikes against ISIL targets. Last month, Dempsey told lawmakers that the U.S. needed better intelligence to be able to use air power successfully.
“We have a much better intelligence picture than we had two weeks ago, and it continues to get better,” Dempsey told reporters Thursday.
It will still be difficult, however, to distinguish ISIL fighters from the Sunni groups that have joined forces with them recently due to grievances with the central government in Baghdad, according to Dempsey.
“That’s going to be … a tough challenge to separate them, if we were to take a decision to strike,” he said.
Dempsey argued that attacking all insurgent groups without discriminating between ISIL and other Sunnis would be counterproductive because it would fuel a sectarian war and have negative long-term consequences for Iraq’s political future.
Dempsey also was asked about Iranian military involvement in Iraq. He said it has recently become “more overt,” including the provision of military equipment to the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad and the use of drone aircraft.
In remarks that appeared to be out of sync with previous Pentagon statements, Dempsey did not say cooperating with Iran militarily was off the table.
“We do not intend at this time to coordinate them. [But] it’s not impossible that in the future we would have reason to do so,” he said.
Dempsey foresees the U.S. confronting groups like ISIL indefinitely.
“The ideology that stretches from South Asia across the Arab world and into north and west Africa … which is essentially an anti-Western, very conservative religious, and in some cases a radically violent ideology — we’re stuck with that for the foreseeable future; a generation or two,” he said.