The Pentagon warned Congress on Thursday that the long, drawn-out military campaign against Islamic State militants is just beginning and could expand to include modest numbers of US forces fighting alongside Iraqi troops.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, delivered a cautious assessment of the progress in the three-month-old war against Islamic extremists who brutally rule large sections of Iraq and Syria.
It was more than a status report. President Barack Obama is seeking congressional approval for $ 5.6 billion to expand the US mission in Iraq and send up to 1,500 more American troops. The administration is also pressing for reauthorization of its plan to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels, with that mandate expiring Dec. 11.
Hagel said the coalition, which has grown with 16 new members since September, has made progress, with the militants’ advances stalling and in some instances, reversed by air strikes and other military operations.
But he maintained that the struggle will be long and difficult in what could be a multiyear campaign.
Dempsey said the Iraqi forces are doing a better job, but he said an effort to move into Mosul, now held by IS, or to restore the border with Syria would require more complex operations.
“I’m not predicting at this point that I would recommend that those forces in Mosul and along the border would need to be accompanied by US forces, but we’re certainly considering it,” Dempsey told the House Armed Services Committee.
He added that the US has a modest force in Iraq now, serving as advisers and trainers, and “any expansion of that, I think, would be equally modest. I just do not foresee a circumstance when it would be in our interest to take this fight on ourselves with a large military contingent. “
Dempsey’s comments echoed his testimony to Congress in September when he raised the possibility of an expanded US role. Obama has said the operation will not involve US ground troops. The types of troops likely to accompany Iraqi forces would be there to call in or direct airstrikes or other close air support.
US and coalition forces have conducted about 900 air strikes in Iraq and Syria as they contend with a core militant force of 15,000 to 18,000 fighters.
“This pressure is having an effect on potential ISIL recruits and collaborators – striking a blow to morale and recruitment,” Hagel said. “We know that. Our intelligence is very clear on that. And as Iraqi forces build strength, the tempo and intensity of our coalition’s air campaign will accelerate in tandem.”
He used the term ISIL, an acronym for the group’s former name, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
His testimony came as the leader of the Islamic State group, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, said in an audio recording posted Thursday that the organization will fight to the last man. It was his first public statement since coalition forces launched airstrikes against his fighters in Iraq and Syria, in which al-Baghdadi allegedly was wounded.
Officials told The Associated Press that Islamic militants and al-Qaida have agreed on a plan to stop fighting each other and work together against their opponents. That accord could present serious problems for US strategy against the militants.
Dempsey acknowledged the complicated trajectory of the fight.