There’s Little the U.S. Could Have Done for Iraq, Hagel and Dempsey Say

Despite pleas for action, military leaders say more intelligence is needed for the president to intervene in Iraq.

U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, left, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Stafff Army Gen. Martin Dempsey deliver remarks earlier this month in Washington. The two leaders on Thursday said they were concerned about potential ramifications following the execution of North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un's powerful uncle.
National Journal
June 19, 2014, 3:34 a.m.

In their first pub­lic re­marks since Is­lam­ic in­sur­gents stretch­ing back to Syr­ia over­ran much of Ir­aq, United States de­fense lead­ers told Con­gress that the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion was as­sess­ing Bagh­dad’s de­fenses and wait­ing for more in­tel­li­gence about en­emy forces be­fore de­ploy­ing any Amer­ic­an mil­it­ary in­ter­ven­tion to stop the ad­vance.

But the blame for Ir­aq’s de­vol­u­tion, they said, rests squarely with the Ir­aqi Prime Min­is­ter Nouri al-Ma­liki’s re­fus­al to in­clude com­pet­ing polit­ic­al and sec­tari­an fac­tions.

Mem­bers of Con­gress re­acted an­grily to the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s strategy of fin­ger-point­ing at Ma­liki, and at the pace of White House de­lib­er­a­tions since last week. Pres­id­ent Barack Obama met with con­gres­sion­al lead­ers late Wed­nes­day, but in the morn­ing, a slew of mostly con­ser­vat­ive crit­ics called again for swift mil­it­ary strikes against in­sur­gents near­ing Bagh­dad and cri­ti­cized Obama for not se­cur­ing an agree­ment to keep ad­di­tion­al U.S. com­bat forces in Ir­aq after the war ended in 2011, which they claim could have helped buy time for the young Ir­aqi demo­cracy to con­geal and de­ter any re­newed in­sur­gency.

“Well, when we’re not there, we’re not there. And, I mean, I don’t know what you would have ex­pec­ted the United States to do,” De­fense Sec­ret­ary Chuck Hagel said on Wed­nes­day, at a pre­vi­ously sched­uled ap­pear­ance be­fore the Sen­ate Ap­pro­pri­ations Sub­com­mit­tee on De­fense.

Joint Chiefs Chair­man Gen. Mar­tin De­mp­sey said that he was look­ing for a “more ac­cur­ate in­tel­li­gence pic­ture” as to the iden­tity of the ad­van­cing groups as they fight Ir­aqi forces and Kur­d­ish mi­li­tias.

“These forces are very much in­ter­mingled. It’s not as easy as look­ing at an iPhone video of a con­voy and then im­me­di­ately strik­ing it,” De­mp­sey said. In one ex­ample, he said, an Ir­aqi base was over­run but then re­taken by friendly Kur­d­ish fight­ers in short or­der. “In the course of about 36 hours, we had Ir­aqi Army units, we had ISIL [Is­lam­ic State in Ir­aq and the Le­vant], and then we had the Pesh­merga in that same fa­cil­ity.”

De­mp­sey also con­firmed that the Ir­aq gov­ern­ment had re­ques­ted air power.

Few seni­or U.S. mil­it­ary com­mand­ers and Wash­ing­ton polit­ic­al lead­ers have as close a tie to Ir­aq as De­mp­sey, who com­manded the train­ing of Ir­aqi forces. De­mp­sey said parts of two Ir­aqi army di­vi­sions and a ma­jor po­lice unit “did, in fact, throw down their arms, and in some cases col­lude with, in some cases simply desert, in north­ern Ir­aq.” He blamed the dis­ar­ray on their lack of trust in the cent­ral gov­ern­ment.

“Al-Qaeda-in­spired ex­trem­ists rais­ing flags over Ir­aq’s em­battled cit­ies trig­gers in me the same thing that runs through the minds of any vet­er­an who served there,” he said, “which is bit­ter dis­ap­point­ment that Ir­aq’s lead­ers failed to unite for the good of their people.”

De­mp­sey said he vis­ited Bagh­dad last year and spoke to Ma­liki and Ir­aqi lead­ers about the Syr­i­an war spill­ing in­to their coun­try. The prob­lem, he told them, was not in Syr­ia but in their own polit­ic­al in­fight­ing and in­ab­il­ity or un­will­ing­ness to unite Ir­aq against the com­ing in­sur­gency.

“And in that year, the be­ha­vi­or was, for the most part, ex­actly counter to what you would prob­ably try to do if you were try­ing to bring your people to­geth­er: chan­ging mil­it­ary lead­er­ship, cronyism, just all forms of sec­tari­an­ism that have led us to where we are today,” De­mp­sey told the pan­el.

Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., led ques­tion­ing why the Pentagon did not already have strike op­tions ready to go, know­ing that in­tel­li­gence lead­ers like former De­fense In­tel­li­gence Agency chief Lt. Gen. Mi­chael Flynn warned months ago that ISIL was ad­van­cing in Ir­aq. Hagel said those op­tions were be­ing presen­ted Wed­nes­day by the pres­id­ent to con­gres­sion­al lead­ers.

“Isn’t that a little bit late?” Coats said. “Well, sen­at­or,” De­mp­sey replied, “it’s only late if you sug­gest that we could have stopped it in some way. And I think it’s worth re­mem­ber­ing the real threat in Ir­aq that is com­mon to all of us is ISIL, this or­gan­iz­a­tion calledIS­IL, which, as you know, star­ted off as al-Qaeda in Ir­aq, went to Syr­ia, and is now back in Ir­aq. So this all star­ted and stops with Ir­aq. And there is very little that could have been done to over­come the de­gree to which the gov­ern­ment of Ir­aq had failed its people. That’s what has caused this prob­lem.”

“We were sur­prised,” ad­ded Hagel, “that the Ir­aqi di­vi­sions, spe­cific­ally the ones that Gen. De­mp­sey talked about, just threw down their weapons. We had ob­vi­ously, as Gen. De­mp­sey said — are al­ways work­ing op­tions and scen­ari­os.”

“We can only do so much. We didn’t have a pres­ence in Ir­aq, as you know, for the very reas­on you men­tioned, be­cause the Ir­aqis would not give us the im­munity and what we needed to get a SOFA.”

“I don’t know that the pres­ence of U.S. mil­it­ary would have uniquely changed the prob­lem,” De­mp­sey said.

The U.S is now try­ing to de­cipher ex­actly which Shiite mi­li­tias have joined Ir­aqi se­cur­ity forces de­fend­ing Bagh­dad. “What is left of the Ir­aqi se­cur­ity forces? They seem to be hold­ing a line that roughly runs from Baqu­bah north of Bagh­dad over to Fal­lu­jah.”

But as De­mp­sey ex­plained the out­look on the ground, on the Sen­ate floor, Sen. John Mc­Cain, R-Ar­iz., con­tin­ued his im­pas­sioned plea for im­me­di­ate mil­it­ary strikes.

“It’s the largest ter­ror­ist safe haven in his­tory,” Mc­Cain said of the Ir­aqi north now oc­cu­pied by ISIL fight­ers, which threatens to “erase the gains that nearly 4,500 brave young Amer­ic­ans gave their lives to se­cure.”

Mc­Cain ar­gued that when Obama came to of­fice, the surge ofU.S. troops “had suc­ceeded. Ir­aq was not vi­ol­ent.” he said. “We had won the war.”

“The ad­min­is­tra­tion and its de­fend­ers are now scram­bling to pin the blame for this cata­stroph­ic fail­ure on any­one but them­selves,” he said.

Mc­Cain, re­spond­ing to his own crit­ics, nu­anced his pre­vi­ous state­ments against Obama’s na­tion­al se­cur­ity team by say­ing that he cri­ti­cized the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion’s mis­hand­ling of the Ir­aq war as early as 2003, and he called for

the fir­ing of former De­fense Sec­ret­ary Don­ald Rums­feld in 2006. Mc­Cain said the U.S should call up re­tired Gen. Dav­id Pet­raeus and Am­bas­sad­or Ry­an Crock­er, who both sup­por­ted the surge that helped turn the tide of the Ir­aq War. The “li­on’s share” of re­spons­ib­il­ity for Ir­aq’s col­lapse, he said, falls on Ma­liki, “but the ad­min­is­tra­tion can­not es­cape its own re­spons­ib­il­ity.”

In Lon­don on Wed­nes­day, Pet­raeus broke his si­lence on Ir­aq and poin­tedly did not back Mc­Cain’s eager­ness for mil­it­ary re-in­ter­ven­tion. “This can­not be the United States be­ing the air force for Shia mi­li­tias, or a Shia on Sunni Ar­ab fight,” he said, ac­cord­ing to the Spec­tat­or.

Mc­Cain read a long his­tory of the end of the Ir­aq War, ar­guing that Obama’s White House pur­pose­fully avoided mul­tiple chances to ne­go­ti­ate with Ir­aqi fac­tions to keep Amer­ic­an troops in coun­try. By the end of 2011, Mc­Cain ar­gued, it was no longer polit­ic­ally pal­at­able for Ir­aq’s polit­ic­al lead­ers to ask Amer­ic­an forces to stay. Mc­Cain said he be­lieves the U.S.should have con­tin­ued train­ing Ir­aqis and main­tain­ing a force that could lean on Ir­aqi’s to unite.

“The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion should have re­cog­nized after years of bru­tal con­flict Ir­aqi lead­ers still lacked trust in one an­oth­er and a strong U.S. role was re­quired to help Ir­aqis broker their most polit­ic­ally sens­it­ive de­cision,” Mc­Cain said.

Mc­Cain also said he is not ad­voc­at­ing for a large scale U.S.ground in­ter­ven­tion.

“There is a need for im­me­di­ate ac­tion,” Mc­Cain pleaded. “I do not be­lieve they can take Bagh­dad, but look at the places they have taken”¦ there is no good op­tion. The worst op­tion is to do noth­ing,” he said.

Sen. Marco Ru­bio, R-Fla., fol­lowed Mc­Cain on the Sen­ate floor to con­nect the Ir­aq crisis to 9/11. Ru­bio ar­gued that if the U.S.had taken al-Qaeda more ser­i­ously and taken ac­tions to “de­grade” the group be­fore 9/11, those at­tacks could have been pre­ven­ted.

“What is hap­pen­ing today in Ir­aq and in por­tions of Syr­ia is in many ways the ex­act same thing,” Ru­bio ar­gued. Ru­bio has made sev­er­al ef­forts this year to stake a po­s­i­tion as a na­tion­al se­cur­ity play­er while strug­gling to gain sup­port as a vi­able Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate in 2016. On Thursday, Ru­bio called Obama to “rally us around a plan” soon­er rather than later.

“I know the pres­id­ent likes to go around say­ing the war is over, but no one told ISIL that,” Ru­bio said

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