Top Army General: More U.S. Ground Forces Might Be Needed in Iraq
During a recent visit to the 9/11 museum in New York City, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno took a look back in time. He was particularly struck by eerie similarities between threats made by al-Qaida in the early 1990s and those being made now by the Islamic State.
The Islamic State, also known as ISIL, is rapidly destabilizing the Middle East as it captures more territory in Iraq and Syria. But Odierno is convinced that its ultimate goal is to attack the West, especially the United States.
“If you don't believe they want to attack the West, and America, you're kidding yourself,” Odierno told reporters Sept. 19 during a breakfast meeting in Washington, D.C.
Odierno predicts that ISIL could become an “existential threat” if the United States and its allies are not able to contain its expansion within the next two to three years.
The current plan is to train and equip Iraqi forces and Syrian rebels to do the heavy fighting on the ground, with the United States providing air power and intelligence support. The Obama administration approved the deployment of 1,600 military advisors to help the Iraqi government coordinate air strikes and train its army. The president has been adamant that he will not send U.S. troops to fight on the ground.
Odierno just returned from Europe, where he got into political hot water for suggesting that ground forces would be needed to defeat ISIL. He insisted that by “ground forces,” he meant Iraqi troops. But he cautioned that he could not rule out the possibility that the United States might have to increase its presence on the ground if the current strategy does not show tangible progress over the next two to three years.
“I don't ever rule anything out,” said Odierno. “We all agree with the current strategy,” he said of Obama’s plan. “But if down the road, ISIL becomes an existential threat to the United States and we haven't achieved our objectives, you always have to reassess, that's all I'm saying.”
Odierno stood behind controversial comments made by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Sept. 16. Dempsey said he would recommend to the president that U.S. advisors accompany Iraqi troops on attacks against ISIL targets if and when he reaches the point when he believes that will be necessary.
“This is not a short term fight,” Odierno said. “We have to adjust as we go along. … There is no rush to have lots of people there —1,600 is a good start.”
For now, “we have the right strategy,” said Odierno. “We have to allow time for it to work.” In a perfect world, it would be the Iraqis who defeat ISIL on their own, but if they fall short over the next couple of years, “we have to reassess,” he said.
Odierno said the fight against ISIL will require “air, ground and 'whole of government' capabilities” such as diplomacy, political means and economic development. The population has to be protected from the “incredible violence that ISIL brings to the community,” he said. The Iraqis and whoever else joins the coalition will be trained in counterinsurgency warfare. “That is what I believe needs to be done,” he said. “As a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, it's our responsibility to provide advice to the defense secretary. But ultimately the president makes the decisions.”
One of Odierno’s biggest concerns about the current strategy is that it hinges on political developments in Iraq, and whether the Iraqi population rallies behind its army to help flush out ISIL. “You have to have the population supporting you to defeat ISIL,” he said. “Air strikes alone will not defeat or destroy ISIS, it will slow their advance.”
He worries that the Iraqi government is moving too slowly in building a consensus government that includes Sunnis and Kurds. “They have not yet appointed a minister of defense or a minister of interior, so we are watching that very carefully,” Odierno said.
The government there must be one in which Iraqis believe, he said. “If that doesn't happen, we're going to have a lot of trouble inside Iraq.”
Odierno commanded the 4th Infantry Division in Iraq and served as the Commanding General, Multi-National Corps Iraq, and was the top commander of Multinational Force Iraq and United States Forces Iraq. When he left the country in 2010, Odierno never imagined the army he helped build would collapse so suddenly.
“It has been disappointing to watch what's happened in Iraq,” he said. Just four years ago, “I truly believed security was good, the economy was growing, a government was elected.” He blames the Shiite government’s sectarian policies for the breakdown of the military — as Sunni leaders were replaced by government loyalists — which allowed ISIL to exploit the divide and swoop in.
Iraq’s leaders have to “rebuild the trust,” he said. “They need the support of Sunni tribes. That has to be a major effort.”
The current plan is to train and equip 26 Iraqi brigades. Only half of the existing army is “trainable,” he said. The other half includes sectarian militias that the U.S. military sees as problematic. “We certainly are not going to train militias,” Odierno said. Iraqi forces will be trained both in counterinsurgency and combat tactics to fight ISIL. They also have a large arsenal of U.S. weaponry.
If other nations decide to join the coalition, he said, they will be trained and equipped as well, and the United States will provide them intelligence and targeting support.
Although U.S. air strikes so far have inflicted damage on ISIL, a major worry for U.S. commanders is the possibility that insurgents will use women and children as human shields. If civilians are killed, that will turn Iraqis against the United States and that could deal a major blow to the current strategy.
“That's the worst thing that could happen for us, if we start killing innocent Iraqis,” said Odierno. “We have to be careful and precise.” The targets pursued so far, such as armored vehicles and artillery, have been clearly identifiable. “They're very difficult to hide in the middle of the desert,” he said. Odierno fears ISIL fighters are going to start “infiltrating back into the population. That's when it's going to become more difficult. That's why you have to have the Iraqi forces trained to go in there.” This is the same problem that U.S. forces faced over a decade of war in Iraq.
With regard to Syria, Odierno said he backs the administration’s plan — and approved by Congress Sept. 18 — to train 5,000 Syrian rebels over the coming year. But he hinted that this is only the beginning of a much bigger effort.
“Five thousand is a good number to start,” he said. More than that would be tough to handle now because these fighters have to be individually vetted to make sure they are not militants with extremist agendas.