U.S. combat troops may be needed back in Iraq to defeat the Islamic State jihadis if air strikes and Arab boots on the ground fail, President Barack Obama's top soldier conceded Tuesday.
In what sounded like mission creep before the United States' newest war – launched only days earlier in a nationwide address by Mr. Obama – really got under way, General Martin Dempsey laid out several scenarios where U.S. ground troops might be needed.
Pink-clad peace protesters chanting "No more war" repeatedly interrupted the Senate armed services committee hearing in a scene reminiscent of the years of George W. Bush.
Mr. Obama's newly hatched strategy for war against the Islamic State envisions U.S. warplanes coupled with Arab boots on the ground in both Iraq and Syria to "degrade and ultimately destroy" the Sunni militants.
"My view at this point is that this coalition is the appropriate way forward," Gen. Dempsey said. "I believe that will prove true, but if it fails to be true and if there are threats to the United States then I, of course, would go back to the President and make a recommendation that we include the use of U.S. military ground forces."
Mr. Obama ordered U.S. warplanes into action against the Islamic State last month after it routed Baghdad's mostly Shia army in northern and western Iraq in a series of lightning advances that gave the Sunni extremists control of the city of Mosul and the Tigris and Euphrates valleys.
Last week, the President upped the number of U.S. Special Forces to more than 1,500 following the brutal beheadings of two U.S. journalists. But in an address to the country, the President, who came to power promising to get U.S. troops out of Iraq, vowed there would be no repeat of the huge invasion launched by his predecessor in 2003 or the 150,000-plus U.S. combat forces that waged a bitter counterinsurgency against Sunni militants in the same parts of Iraq where Islamic State has carved out a proto-state.
Mr. Obama portrayed sending the 1,500 U.S. Special Forces as advisers only. "As I have said before, these American forces will not have a combat mission. We will not get dragged into another ground war in Iraq," he said.
Gen. Dempsey's suggestion that – in the absence of combat capable Arab forces – U.S. ground forces might be needed was quickly downplayed by the White House.
The general was "referring to a hypothetical scenario in which there might be a future situation where he might make a tactical recommendation to the President as it relates to ground troops," Mr. Obama's spokesman Josh Earnest said.
Gen. Dempsey also said U.S. Special Forces may be needed on the front lines to co-ordinate attacks and call in air strikes.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper sent about 70 Canadian special forces to northern Iraq, but Ottawa has remained tight-lipped as to their precise roles. In Afghanistan, for instance, Canadian forward air controllers called in U.S. air strikes on Taliban positions, but whether that sort of close-to-combat role will be followed in Iraq remains unclear.
"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," Gen. Dempsey said, using an older acronym for the militant group that has established a so-called caliphate the size of New Brunswick in Iraq and Syria.
Although U.S. State of Secretary John Kerry said earlier this week that some Arab states have offered ground troops, he declined to identify them.
Meanwhile, Iraq's army – built, trained and equipped over half a decade and at a cost of tens of billions of dollars – has proved mostly incapable of coping with the Islamic State, a rag-tag but ruthless force of between 25,000 and 30,000 jihadis with a terrifying penchant for mass executions of prisoners.
On Monday night, U.S. warplanes attacked Islamic State militants as they advanced to the outer suburbs of Baghdad.
Even as he conceded that U.S. ground forces might be needed, Gen. Dempsey made clear that a massive U.S. force such as the one sent to Iraq a decade ago won't solve the current crisis.
"It really comes down to us building a coalition so that what the Arab Muslim world sees is them rejecting [the militants]," he said. "Even if we were to go in on the ground, armoured divisions, with flags unfurled, I don't think we would do anything more than push this problem further to the right."
Some senators were clearly skeptical about Mr. Obama's limited war strategy. "This is geopolitical Whack-a-mole," said Senator Angus King of Maine.