American combat troops may be needed to battle Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) forces in the Middle East if President Barack Obama's current strategy fails, the nation's top military officer said on Tuesday as Congress prepares to put to a vote the U.S. plan to expand airstrikes and train Syrian rebels.
"To be clear, if we reach the point where I believe our advisers should accompany Iraqi troops on attacks against specific ISIL targets, I will recommend that to the president," Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Martin Dempsey said in testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who was in attendance, told lawmakers that the U.S. plans to carry out airstrikes against ISIL fighters in Syria and will target the group’s resources.
"This plan includes targeted actions against ISIL safe havens in Syria, including its command and control, logistics capabilities and infrastructure," he told the committee.
Pressed later by Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the panel's chairman, Dempsey said that if Obama's current approach isn't enough to prevail, he might "go back to the president and make a recommendation that may include the use of ground forces."
Obama has maintained repeatedly that U.S. forces will not have a renewed ground combat mission in Iraq in this new phase of a long war against extremists.
Dempsey's remarks drew a prompt, polite rebuttal from the White House. Obama "will not deploy ground troops in a combat role into Iraq or Syria," said spokesman Josh Earnest.
But Dempsey said Obama told him to come back on a "case by case basis" if the military situation changed.
After the hearing, Dempsey told reporters traveling with him to Paris that the Pentagon concluded that about half of Iraq's army was incapable of partnering effectively with the U.S. to roll back ISIL's territorial gains in western and northern Iraq and that the other half needs to be partly rebuilt with U.S. training and additional equipment.
He said U.S. military teams that spent much of the summer in Iraq assessing the strengths and weaknesses of Iraqi security forces concluded that 26 of 50 army brigades were capable partners for the U.S. He described them as well led and well equipped, adding, "They appear to have a national instinct instead of a sectarian instinct." He said the 24 other brigades were too heavily weighted with Shias to be part of a credible national force.
Dempsey's testimony underscored the dilemma confronting many lawmakers as the House debates authorizing the the policy that Obama announced last week.
Obama is likely to get his wish on an expanded military fight against ISIL in the House's Wednesday vote despite worries from hawks in both parties that his response was insufficient to battle ISIL.
Many Republicans said they worry that Obama is responding tepidly to the current threat from fighters who have overrun large sections of Iraq and Syria and beheaded two American journalists. "If it's important enough to fight, it's important enough to win," said Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., one of the first lawmakers to address the subject in several hours of scheduled debate.
With only seven weeks before the midterm elections, most Republicans had little stomach to oppose Obama on a matter of national security, particularly when polls suggest he has the support of large segments of the public. As a result, the likelihood is that Congress will swing behind his request and then return for a fuller debate of his war strategy in a postelection session of Congress.
"I think there's a lot more that we need to be doing, but there's no reason for us not to do what the president asked us to do," said House Speaker John Boehner.
The legislation drew support from Sen. Levin, an influential voice among Democrats on military matters. He is retiring, but fellow Democrat Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, who is in a difficult re-election race, said she intended to back Obama's request. Even so, she added it "would be a mistake" for Congress not to debate the issue in depth in the future.
But some lawmakers, especially on the Democratic side, spoke of a fear that the U.S. might inevitably be dragged into yet another ground war after withdrawing combat troops from Afghanistan and Iraq. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, said approving Obama's plan "will make our families less secure, not more secure."
Dempsey and Hagel fielded questions as Obama met in the Oval Office with retired Marine Gen. John Allen, who is coordinating international efforts to combat ISIL.
Anti-war protesters filled the front rows at the Senate hearing, chanting "No more war" at the start of the session and repeatedly interrupting the testimony. Several were removed from the room by police.