WASHINGTON — At a defense budget hearing dominated by the crisis in Iraq, Pentagon leaders bashed the Iraqi government for the deteriorating security situation, and addressed lawmakers’ fears that the same thing could happen in Afghanistan after U.S. forces withdraw.
“Al Qaida-inspired extremists raising flags over Iraq’s embattled cities triggers in me the same thing that runs through the mind of any veteran who served there, which is bitter disappointment that Iraqi leaders failed to unite for the good of their people,” chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey told members of Congress Wednesday.
Dempsey said that during the past year, he and other senior U.S. military officials have been warning the Shia-dominated Iraqi government — including Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki — that its sectarian-motivated actions were alienating other ethnic groups and jeopardizing the Iraqi security forces’ ability to deal with the threat posed by Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant militants.
“The behavior was, for the most part, exactly counter to what you would probably try to do if you were trying to bring your people together: Changing military leadership, cronyism — just all forms of sectarianism that have led us to where we are today,” Dempsey said.
Dempsey said that members of the Iraqi security forces threw down their arms and in some cases colluded with ISIL when the militants were advancing across northern Iraq in recent days, because they had “lost faith” that the central government in Baghdad was dealing with the entire population in a fair and equitable way.
Dempsey did point out, however, that there are still units of the Iraqi armed forces composed of members of mutiple religious sects standing firm and defending Baghdad.
“This has not broken down entirely on sectarian lines,” Dempsey said, “but it could.”
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel defended the administration from Republican criticism that it hasn’t been doing enough to deal with the crisis.
“I don’t think we should assign the blame to the United States for this … ISIL [is responsible]. They invaded, but also this current government in Iraq has never fulfilled the commitments it made to bring a unity government together,” Hagel said. “We can’t dictate to them … When we’re not there, we’re not there. I don’t know what you would have expected the United States to do.”
In recent days, the U.S. has moved ships, aircraft and troops into the region to deal with a potential Iraq contingency. The officials said that no decisions about the use of force have been made.
Dempsey told lawmakers that the Iraqi government has formally asked the U.S. military to launch airstrikes against the militants, but he pointed out that doing so could be difficult because ISIL is intermingled with the population and the Iraqi forces battling them.
He added that ISIL is not currently a direct threat to the U.S. homeland, but could become one “over time” if left unchecked.
Hagel was asked if he feared that a potential attack on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Baghdad could be worse than what happened in 2012 in Benghazi, Libya, when militants attacked the consulate and its annex and killed four Americans.
“It’s a bigger force, bigger threat, bigger dynamics. Yes, it’s a huge — it’s a huge threat,” Hagel said.
In recent days, the U.S. has deployed an additional 160 troops to protect U.S. facilities in Baghdad, and stationed another hundred or so near Iraq as a contingency force that could be involved in rescue operations.
Lawmakers from both parties expressed concerns that what is happening now in Iraq might happen in Afghanistan after American troops are withdrawn. Hagel and Dempsey both expressed confidence that that wouldn’t happen, citing the growing strength of the Afghan National Security Forces and a belief that the new Afghan president will form and maintain a unity government. However, they acknowledged that an Iraq-like scenario could unfold.
“I can’t ... completely convince myself or you that the risk is zero that that couldn’t happen in Afghanistan,” Dempsey said. “I do have concerns about the future of Afghanistan, and we will continue to do what we can to build into them the kind of resilience that we can build into a security force. But at the end of the day, a security force is only as good as the instrument that wields it, and that’s the central government.”