President Obama’s war Cabinet is not instilling confidence in the public about his “no boots on the ground” strategy to defeat the Islamic State now anchored in two countries and in more than a dozen towns.
In congressional testimony last week, officials’ predictions for how the mission would succeed one day repeatedly were couched in big “ifs.”
Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the Joint Chiefs chairman, talked about the initial phase of relying on Iraqi ground troops as some sort of trial. He said he might determine that Iraqi Security Forces need Americans fighting in close combat, not confined to distant brigade headquarters.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry raised a scenario in which the Obama strategy fails, and it is left up to Shiite Iran to defeat the Islamic State, the brutal Sunni extremist army and an al Qaeda spinoff also known by the acronyms ISIS and ISIL.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the whole strategy for defeating the Islamic State in Syria largely rests on a local fighting force that right now exists only on paper.
“If we don’t have ground capability in moderate opposition, yes, it affects a rather significant dimension of the overall strategy,” Mr. Hagel testified.
Overall, there were no flat predictions to Congress that Iraq will be able to muster ground units capable of the gritty, persistent fighting needed to evict Islamic State terrorists, town by town, from Fallujah in the west to Mosul in the north.
Meanwhile, the voices of military analysts — including two former Obama defense chiefs — have grown louder in criticizing the administration’s latest strategy to combat the Islamic State.
“I really thought that it was important for us to maintain a presence in Iraq,” Mr. Panetta said in an interview set to air on “60 Minutes.”
Mr. Panetta said the entire national security team urged Mr. Obama to give more support to rebels fighting in Syria against President Bashar Assad.
Mr. Panetta’s predecessor, former Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, said Mr. Obama’s plan to rely on airstrikes without U.S. ground troops is doomed to failure.
“The reality is, they’re not gonna be able to be successful against ISIS strictly from the air, or strictly depending on the Iraqi forces, or the [Kurdish] peshmerga or the Sunni tribes acting on their own,” Mr. Gates said Wednesday on “This Morning” on CBS. “So there will be boots on the ground if there’s to be any hope of success in the strategy. And I think that by continuing to repeat that [the U.S. won’t put boots on the ground], the president, in effect, traps himself.”
Retired Army Maj. Gen. Robert Scales echoed Mr. Gates’ assessment, saying the Obama war Cabinet’s “lack of confidence is well-founded.”
“What I find so interesting is a virtually complete consensus among active, retired military and virtually every policymaker in this town that this effort will fail. This is an unprecedented lack of confidence in our military effort,” Gen. Scales said.
He added: “Kerry deflects criticism about the military prospects by emphasizing the other elements of power, such as the financial, diplomatic and political. Problem is that this enemy is virtually unique about not giving a damn about anything but fighting and killing.”
An officer at the Pentagon said, “The DOD is not clear what they can or can’t do because the White House has not yet made it clear. Therefore, DOD is confused and struggling to make a decent plan.”
At a Senate Committee on Foreign Relations hearing, Mr. Kerry was pressed by Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican, on possible outcomes. The secretary of state said the ultimate ending is unclear and that Iran may be the possible savior in defeating the Islamic State.
“I’m not going to get into hypotheticals, but you’re presuming that Iran and Syria don’t have any capacity to take on ISIL,” Mr. Kerry said. “I mean, who knows? I’m not going to get — I don’t know what’s going to happen here.”
He then raised the possibility of utter failure — and success.
“If we’re failing and failing miserably, who knows what choice they [Syria and Iran] might make? You prepositioned this on the notion we’re failing. I don’t believe we’re going to fail,” he said. “There are lots of possibilities. There are lots of possibilities between here and there.”
At a Senate Committee on Armed Services hearing, Gen. Dempsey was asked if Sunni tribal leaders are coming to the coalition side — a key development in making the strategy work.
“I can’t make that report yet, senator,” said the four-star general, who played a major role in training the Iraqi Security Forces before U.S. troops pulled out in December 2011.
Gen. Dempsey laid out an iffy scenario for success on the battlefield.
“We know which [Iraqi units] are capable of partnering and improving their capabilities,” he said. “If we can get enough of them to go on the offensive, both west and north, get the peshmerga to squeeze from the north to south, and then find a way over time in Syria, initially to disrupt using air power and eventually to pressure using a moderate opposition, then I think [this will] place ISIL in an untenable position.”
Iraqi forces retreated en masse rather than stand and fight as the Islamic State’s army crossed into northern Iraq from Syria in June and swallowed up territory from Mosul in the north to Tikrit in the south.
Asked if Iraq’s troops will not fight, Gen. Dempsey said, “Yes, they will fight if they are well-led and believe that their government is looking out for not only their best interests but their families.”
Army Col. Steve Warren, director of Pentagon press operations, said in an interview there are a “number of ifs.”
“The strategy really does pivot on this coalition,” he said. “Everybody agrees you need troops on the ground. And everybody is relying on those troops to be Iraqi troops. So that is the big ‘if.’ Are [the Iraq forces] up to the task? We don’t frankly know the answer yet.”
Since the Iraqi troops’ mass retreat, Col. Warren said, “The Iraqis have comported themselves better. I mean, they did manage to retake the Mosul Dam. They did good work around Haditha. They did good work around Amerli. There are some good, solid Iraqi forces. But yeah, at the end of the day, there are a number of ‘ifs.’ There just are. But that’s all we’ve got.”
Aided by U.S. airstrikes, Kurdish and Shiite militia fighters broke the Islamic State’s long siege of Amerli and its 15,000 residents earlier this month.
Gen. Scales, a highly decorated combatant in Vietnam, said Mr. Obama’s no-boots-on-the-ground edict “violates virtually every tenet of modern American warfare.”
He said U.S. Central Command has launched an air campaign that “aggravates rather than damages ISIS” with only a few strikes each day while the U.S. looks to “unreliable allies whom we are asking to do the dying for us.”
“What’s not to love?” Gen. Scales added.
• Kellan Howell contributed to this report.
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