Reality Check: We May Need U.S. Troops to Beat ISIS
Policy + Politics

Reality Check: We May Need U.S. Troops to Beat ISIS

Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, confirmed to the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday what many in the defense policy community suspected since the first airstrikes against ISIS were announced in June: This fight could inevitably end up with American boots fighting on the ground.

When President Obama first announced in June that 300 military advisers would be sent to Baghdad to help in the fight against ISIS, it was clear that the mere presence of American advisers would not be enough to defeat ISIS. The Iraqi military was too ill-equipped to take on the fights themselves, despite the president’s claim to the contrary.

Related: Why Taking on ISIS Could Be a Huge Fiscal Fiasco

“We do not have the ability to simply solve this problem by sending in tens of thousands of troops and committing the kinds of blood and treasure that has already been expended in Iraq," Obama said in the White House briefing room in June. "Ultimately, this is something that is going to have to be solved by Iraqis."

Immediately after the speech, CNN military analyst Rick Francona said this was a sign of things to come.

“This is the first step. This is how you get drawn into these situations," he said.

Fast-forward to mid-August, when Obama announced the arrival of American troops at Mt. Sinjar, where ISIS trapped a group of Yazidi Christians. Obama ordered airstrikes to free them, then sent U.S. troops to survey the situation.

Related: Drive ISIS to the Gates of Hell But Bypass Syria?

Benjamin Rhodes, deputy national security adviser, reiterated at the time that no American combat troops would be on the ground.

“What [Obama’s] ruled out is reintroducing U.S. forces into combat on the ground in Iraq,” Rhodes said.

As time went on, and in the wake of the beheading of three westerners, it has become increasingly clear that airpower has its limits. The majority of the 162 airstrikes conducted to date have targeted combat infrastructure, like command posts, tanks and trucks. However, as George W. Bush’s Iraq War showed, it’s difficult to destroy an insurgency without troops on the ground.

All of this combined to give this morning’s hearings a certain degree of inevitability. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warmed up the senators with dire warnings about the length of the fight against ISIS.

Related: What ISIS Really Wants (Besides Your Head)

“We are at war with ISIL, as we are with al Qaeda,” Hagel said, referring to an alternate name for the group used by the administration. “But destroying ISIL will require more than military efforts alone … it will require political progress in the region, and effective partners on the ground in Iraq and Syria.”

Then, under questioning, Dempsey confirmed what had seemed likely from the start: After leaving Iraq in 2011, American soldiers would be returning and would likely have to fight. 

“If we reach the point where I believe our advisers should accompany Iraqi troops on attacks against specific [ISIS] targets, I’ll recommend that to the president,” Dempsey said.

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