Evan Vucci/AP
Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey is seen on Capitol Hill in Washington, Nov. 13, while testifying before the House Armed Services committee hearing on the Islamic State group.

US strategy against Islamic State: Iraq first, but not Iraq only, Dempsey says

Gen. Martin Dempsey, speaking at a Washington event Wednesday, focused both on the lack of adequate forces in Syria and the training of Iraqi national fighters in the battle against the Islamic State.

America’s top military officer is pushing back against criticism of President Obama for not having a clear strategy against the Islamic State (IS).

Broadly, the stated US goal has been to “degrade and ultimately destroy” IS, the militant group that now controls large swaths of Iraq and Syria.

“We have a strategy,” Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Wednesday. “But here’s what I can tell you about that strategy: It’s going to change. It’s going to change often.”

For now, he said, “The military strategy is Iraq first – but not Iraq only.”

General Dempsey, who made his remarks at the Defense One summit, an annual gathering of senior military and national-security figures in Washington, spoke both about the training of Iraqi national fighters and about the lack of adequate forces in Syria.

Indeed, there are not enough troops on the ground in Syria to fight IS, Dempsey said.

The additional needed troops will not come from the US military, but rather from the pool of “moderate” fighters that US military forces have committed to training.

For this reason and others, Syria is “far more complicated” than Iraq, Dempsey said.

That training mission, for starters, is fraught with challenges, including determining what, precisely, it means to be a moderate fighter and then vetting them.

It will not happen quickly, either, Pentagon officials have warned. It will take a year to vet and train roughly 5,000 Syrian fighters – a figure that analysts predict will still not be enough to defeat IS (also referred to as ISIS or ISIL).

The key, Dempsey says, is maintaining a strategic focus. He recalled an early experience as young captain, when he was doing a “miserable job” of prioritizing his own efforts.

His company’s first sergeant approached him and said, “ ‘Sir, you’re killing us. You’ve never seen an idea you don’t like.’ ”

Dempsey asked the first sergeant what he would suggest doing. He said, “Tell us what the main thing is, then keep ‘the main thing’ the main thing.”

The “main thing” in the campaign against IS, Dempsey said, is focusing on the following in Iraq: “What do we need to do to get the Iraqi security forces to defeat ISIL?”

That will happen, he added, when the Sunni public in Iraq turns against the IS fighters.

Currently, there are some 1,500 US troops advising Iraqi security forces, with another 1,600 on the way.

In meeting some of the new leadership within the Iraqi government during a trip there this past weekend, Dempsey said he was “encouraged.”

“But look,” he added, “I’m also pragmatic.”

The new leaders in Baghdad have inherited “deep structural vulnerabilities,” Dempsey said, including a sectarian government and hundreds of thousands of displaced people within the country due to renewed fighting.

Iraqi national fighters have had “some tactical success,” pushing out the belt of security around Baghdad, he added. “They are doing better.”

They have also been aided by the atrocities committed by IS, Dempsey said, which has the dual effect of alarming Iraqis and dissuading Iraqi fighters from surrendering, since they have seen through gruesome videos and experience that they will be killed if they do.

The Iraqi fighters “have to watch out for their own standards of behavior,” he added, “or they will be painted with the same brush.”

In this regard, the presence of US troops on the ground will be helpful in supervising Iraqi fighters, Dempsey added. “What we have to watch is that their enthusiasm doesn’t overshadow their capability at this point.”

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