With aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN-77) and its battle group and amphibious transport dock USS Mesa Verde (LPD-19) in position in the Persian Gulf, senators on Defense Appropriations Subcommittee asked very few questions about the budget but plenty on the rise of insurgents in Iraq, if will Afghanistan face the same fate in two years and what can the United States do about both on Wednesday.
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of staff, said the Iraqi government has asked for American airpower to hold Baghdad and drive the insurgents, a combination of forces from the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq (ISIS also identified as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant — ISIL), disaffected extremist Sunnis and foreign fighters from the territory they seized especially in the last week.
ISIL turned the leaders of two Army divisions and a police unit around Mosul, and their soldiers and police either went with them or deserted because they no longer trusted the central government, Dempsey told the panel.
Dempsey termed the insurgents as operating in “a partnership of convenience” that has succeeded in eastern Syria, around Fallujah and Ramadi and Northern Iraq. He acknowledged the growth of al Qaeda ideology not only in the Middle East, but in parts of Africa and “the aspirations” of ISIS to attack western interests outside the region.
Hagel — who said President Barack Obama was to meet later in the day with senators to discuss Iraq and American options in the crisis — stressed “there has to be a reason” for any military action. “There has to be an objective. Where do you go with these” in a situation that needs to be resolved politically.
Using the example of a facility in Northern Iraq that changed hands three times in 36 hours and now is controlled by Kurds, he said, “It’s not as easy as looking at an iPhone video of a convoy and then immediately striking.”
They acknowledged the Iraqi would need better intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) to counter the insurgents and the United States’ moves to bolster security in and around its embassy in Baghdad, but gave no other specific options.
The chairman put the blame for the insurgents’ success squarely on the shoulders Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki’s failure to build an inclusive government. Dempsey added the situation in Afghanistan was different where the two leading candidates for the president appear willing “to try to form a unity government,” but offered no guarantee for future stability. He noted, in contrast to the Iraqis, the Afghans are “far more tenacious” fighters and that this had good and bad aspects. The bad being “fighting with each other” that led to the Taliban taking over most of the country in the late 1990s civil war.
Dempsey, who at one time led the American efforts at training Iraqi security forces, said, he was “bitterly disappointed” that “the government of Iraq has failed its people” in bringing together Shi’a, Sunni and Kurds. It led to the “stunningly quick,” in the words of Sen. Dan Coates (R-Ind.) fall of Mosul, the country’s second largest city, and Fallujah and Ramadi earlier.
Whether the Iraqi leadership can “take the opportunity (to) bring your people together” instead of constantly changing its military leadership, fostering cronyism and worsening sectarian tensions is an open question, Dempsey said. So far the Iraqi government’s response to the insurgency has been “a volume of conspiracy theories.”
“We didn’t lose anything,” Hagel said, noting the Iraqis would not sign a state of forces agreement with the United States so the Americans and other partners had to leave in 2011. ”
We turned a pretty significant opportunity to the Iraqi people when we phased out. We have done everything we could. But it’s up to the Iraqis. I don’t think we can assign blame to the U.S. for this.”
Hagel added, “I think we were surprised that [the Iraqis] just threw down their weapons.” The United States has spent $25 billion on training and equipping Iraqi security forces from the 2003 invasion to now.
Sen. Jack Reed, (D-R.I.), said, “We were trying to warn them and they weren’t listening.”
In looking at Afghanistan two years from now, Hagel said, “It’s up to the people.” Adding, “That country has a very tortured history [and] we can only go so far in helping any country.”