In a recent press conference, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey admitted what many of us Middle East military analysts have feared: Iraqi military and security forces do not have the capability to expel the radical Islamist forces now calling themselves the Islamic State, or the Ibrahim Caliphate. This is troubling on several levels.
Following the rapid successes of the Islamic State in Iraq and [Greater] Syria (ISIS), the United States has deployed hundreds of military advisers to Iraq, as well as moving a small force to help secure Baghdad International Airport and the highway between the airport and the International Zone, location of the U.S. Embassy. The airport will be critical to any evacuation of embassy personnel, civilian contractors and American citizens - the numbers may be in the thousands.
Dempsey was joined by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, who basically parroted the Administration mantra: "President Obama has been very clear that American combat troops are not going to be fighting in Iraq again." He explained that the American troops currently in Iraq are only advising Iraqi forces and assessing the strengths and weaknesses of Iraqi military and security forces, as well as the capabilities of ISIS fighters. The secretary did acknowledge that if President Obama orders airstrikes, "their mission could change."
Okay, so we have the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs tap dancing around the obvious. I think it is a given that the mission is going to change. Why do I think that?
Secretary Hagel claims that he is not aware of the initial assessments of the Iraqi forces' capabilities. Maybe, maybe not - General Dempsey would not have made the statement that Iraqi military and security forces are incapable of retaking the large swath of Iraqi territory now in ISIS hands without "outside help" unless he had information leading him to that conclusion. For the general to drop such a bombshell in a public setting tells me that the initial reports from the American officers now taking stock of the condition of the Iraqi armed forces are not good.
If the Iraqi Army of 250,000 soldiers organized into 14 divisions, equipped with tanks, armored fighting vehicles, artillery and helicopter gunships cannot dislodge a force of maybe 10,000 Islamist irregulars, we are about to have a major foreign policy disaster on our hands.
It is absolutely essential that the Islamic State, the Ibrahim Caliphate or whatever they chose to call it, not be permitted to own territory and assume the status of a country. They have already organized the Syrian and Iraqi territory under their control into administrative divisions with Islamic councils and Shari'ah courts.
This is reminiscent of the Taliban government in Afghanistan in 1996, which became a breeding and training ground for radical jihadi terrorists. We should assume that at some point the United States or American interests (military facilities, Navy ships, businesses, airliners, etc.) will become targets of this new "state."
So, if the Iraqis can't retake their own territory and require "outside help," just who is that going to be?
The secretary and chairman said they were still considering what military options they will recommend to the President, and what role American forces will play. General Dempsey said one option under consideration is providing greater assistance than the approximately 750 U.S. troops now in Iraq. When asked for clarification on just what that means, he replied, "That's not a question that we’re prepared to answer just yet."
If I were the general, I'd start getting ready to answer that question.