Hagel, Dempsey Defend Obama's Strategy For Fighting ISIS

Sep 16, 2014
Originally published on September 16, 2014 5:33 pm

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, defended the Obama administration's new strategy to fight the group called the Islamic State. The two officials were testifying before a Senate committee and were questioned on key aspects of the strategy, including whether a more U.S. troops might be needed on the ground in Iraq.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

New hints today that American combat forces could once again be sent to the battlefield in Iraq. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs Chairmen General Martin Dempsey laid out the administration strategy to defeat the Islamic state; that's the militant force that seized parts of Iraq and Syria. They were testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Hagel said the mission will not be over soon.

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CHUCK HAGEL: This will not be an easy or a brief effort. It is complicated. We are at war with ISIL, as we are with Al Qaeda.

BLOCK: NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman has more on today's hearing.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: President Obama said his strategy to defeat the Islamic state will not include American ground combat troops, what he calls boots on the ground. Instead, hundreds of American advisers are heading to Iraq where they'll work alongside Iraqi troops in headquarters. General Dempsey explained their role.

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MARTIN DEMPSEY: The folks on the ground are in a very much a combat advisory role. They are not participating in direct combat. There is no intention for them to do so.

BOWMAN: No intention. But Dempsey told the senators that there's evidence Isis is ready to attack the U.S. That would be a different story.

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DEMPSEY: And if there are threats to the United States then I, of course, would go back to the president and make a recommendation that may include the use of U.S. military ground forces.

BOWMAN: That threat doesn't seem to be imminent. The U.S. intelligence community says the Islamic state is focused on Syria and Iraq. The American military role in Iraq is much more involved than it would be in Syria. In the short term, Dempsey said some U.S. troops in Iraq could find themselves on the front lines - maybe calling in airstrikes - should Iraqi troops and Kurdish Peshmerga fighters try to take back some of the cities seized by the Islamic state.

DEMPSEY: An example - if the Iraqi security forces and the Pesh were at some point ready to retake Mosul, a mission that I would find to be extraordinarily complex, it could very well be part of that particular mission to provide close combat advising or accompanying for that mission. But for the day-to-day activities that I anticipate will evolve over time, I don't see it to be necessary right now.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Shouting).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I'm asking you to please leave...

BOWMAN: The hearing was interrupted repeatedly by members of the anti-war group Code Pink. They held up signs reading more war equals more extremism. The committee chairman Democrat Carl Levin of Michigan kept banging his gavel for order. Then he asked about the fight on the other side of the border. In Syria, the U.S. wants to enlist local forces there to fight the Islamic state, sometimes called ISIL. Levin pointed out to Secretary Hagel that the Islamic state force now has about 30,000 fighters. The U.S. plans to train about 5,000 rebels.

SENATOR CARL LEVIN: How is that, first of all, going to match up against the ISIL numbers?

HAGEL: 5,000 is a beginning, Mr. Chairman. This is part of the reason this effort is going to be a long-term effort. But we will do it right.

BOWMAN: Republican John McCain questioned General Dempsey about the logic of the plan to train Syrian rebels. He said the rebels want to take on Syria's president, not the Islamic state fighters.

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: You don't think that the free Syrian army is going to fight against Bashir Assad who has been decimating them? You think that these people you're training will only go back to fight against ISIL? Do you really believe that General?

DEMPSEY: I think what you're hearing us express is an ISIL-first strategy.

MCCAIN: You're not going to get many recruits to do that General. I guarantee you that.

BOWMAN: But the Pentagon has yet to say how many recruits the Syrian rebels have. Or how many American troops will be needed to train them. Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.