The top U.S. commander for the war against the Islamic State wanted to insert air controllers on the ground in Iraq to help warplanes locate targets, but he was discouraged by higher-ups.
The incident between Army Gen. Lloyd Austin III, chief of U.S. Central Command, and Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was related by Gen. Dempsey himself Tuesday in testimony before the Senate Committee on Armed Services.
It marked another instance in which Gen. Austin, who waged war against al Qaeda in Iraq six years ago, had wanted to be more aggressive in using ground troops in Iraq but did not win his superiors’ or the White House‘s OK.
The anti-Islamic State operation was the mid-August air assault on enemy fighters who seized the Mosul Dam, a major supplier of electricity in northern Iraq. Iraqi and Kurdish forces launched a successful counteroffensive to secure the Tigris River facility with the help of U.S. airstrikes on Islamic State fighters and vehicles.
At Tuesday’s hearing on how to defeat the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, Sen. Kelly Ayotte, New Hampshire Republican, asked Gen. Dempsey: “Would you agree with me [that] airstrikes are much more effective with [helping] our special forces or having a sort of JTAC capability in terms of the effectiveness of strikes on the ground with our people?”
JTAC stands for Joint Terminal Attack Controllers, who are inserted with troops inside enemy territory to pinpoint targets for manned and drone aircraft attacks. Such personnel are considered highly effective, especially in a crowded battlefield amid civilians.
Gen. Dempsey said the Mosul Dam operation illustrated how the one-month-old campaign has worked so far. A new joint command center in the Kurdish city of Irbil used video from a Predator drone to feed battlefield intelligence to Iraqi counterterrorism troops and the Kurds’ peshmerga fighters. Radios buzzed in three languages: English, Arabic and Kurdish.
“It was a real challenge,” the general said. “But we worked through it. And as we did, we learned some things about how to use advisers from remote locations.”
“If we get to the point where I think we need the JTAC with the Iraqi security forces, I’ll make the recommendation. But I’m not there,” he added.
The battle for Mosul Dam is not the first anecdote involving Gen. Austin and his stated need for ground troops. He recommended keeping a residual force of 23,000 troops in Iraq after the December 2011 withdrawal but was turned down by the Obama White House.
The Washington Post reported last week that he recommended inserting a small number of special operations troops with Iraqi forces in the ongoing anti-Islamic State campaign but again was turned down by the White House, whose theme is “no boots on the ground.”
Currently, 1,600 U.S. troops are in an advise-and-assist role, stationed no lower than Iraqi brigade headquarters.
Gen. Dempsey said U.S. forces could move closer to battle if needed, citing as an example an Iraqi-Kurdish offensive to take back the large city of Mosul.
“If the Iraqi security forces and the [Kurdish peshmerga] were at some point ready to retake Mosul, a mission that I would find to be extraordinarily complex, it could very well be part of that particular mission to provide close combat advising or accompanying for that mission,” he said. “But for the day-to-day activities that I anticipate will evolve over time, I don’t see it to be necessary right now.”
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel testified that he and Gen. Dempsey have approved Gen. Austin‘s war plan for striking the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, where it controls wide swaths of territory. The militants have carried out atrocities, such as the videotaped beheadings of two American journalists and a British humanitarian worker.
President Obama is to be briefed Wednesday on the war plan at U.S. Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Florida.
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