Story highlights

Joint Chiefs chairman speaks to a House committee

Gen. Martin Dempsey says he would not rule out asking for U.S. ground troops in Iraq

But he adds he doesn't "foresee a circumstance ... in our interest to take this fight on ourselves"

Committee chairman expresses concern about Obama's refusal on ground troops

Washington CNN —  

For the second time since the U.S.-led effort to counter ISIS began, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, said he would not rule out asking the President to send U.S. ground troops into Iraq.

“I’ve never been limited in my ability to make a recommendation of any size or sort to the President of the United States,” Dempsey told the House Armed Services Committee on Thursday, adding that he is always re-evaluating the situation in Iraq.

Dempsey told the committee that he could envision scenarios in which a U.S. ground contingent would be necessary in Iraq, particularly if the coalition moves to retake Mosul or the western border with Syria.

“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 U.S. forces,” cautioned Dempsey, “but we’re certainly considering it.”

Rep. Buck McKeon, R-California, the committee’s chairman, expressed concern about President Obama’s consistent refusal to consider sending U.S. ground troops to the region.

“I will not support sending our military into harm’s way with their arms tied behind their backs,” McKeon said, adding he would block any congressional authorization that specifically barred sending ground forces.

And while Dempsey said he would not rule out the need for U.S. ground troops in the future, he added: “I just don’t foresee a circumstance when it would be in our interest to take this fight on ourselves with a large military contingent.”

Throughout the hearing, Dempsey and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel described a mission in Iraq and Syria that will likely be long and fraught with setbacks.

“As a coalition, and as a nation, we must prepare for a long and difficult struggle,” Hagel said.

Echoing those sentiments, Dempsey advised Americans to “take a long view” of the conflict, even as the U.S. and its allies have gained ground.

But members from both parties expressed serious concerns over the administration’s strategy in Iraq and Syria.

While McKeon and others are calling for more U.S. involvement in Iraq and Syria, other members are expressing frustrations over the fact that the United States is potentially becoming involved in another protracted foreign war.

“It looks like we’re going down the same road that [former Defense Secretary] Donald Rumsfeld told us we had to do,” said Rep. Walter Jones, a Republican congressman from North Carolina who was visibly irritated.

Democratic Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, a veteran of the last Iraq war, expressed similar concerns.

“I’m wondering how we can be walking down the same path that we’ve walked down over the last decade or more and hope for a different outcome,” she said.

Committee members also called on the administration to seek a new Authorization for Use of Military Force, essentially getting Congress’ approval to continue U.S. military actions in the region.

President Obama initially said he did not require such authorization, but has since indicated he would work with Congress to secure approval.

Asked about it in the hearing, Hagel said he did not yet know what specific authorizations the White House would be requesting, but insisted the President would engage members of Congress on the issue.

Throughout the hearing, Hagel and Dempsey reiterated that military action alone will not defeat ISIS, and that a political solution will need to come together in Iraq and Syria.

But the secretary of defense stopped short of saying the United States would seek the removal of Syrian President Bashir al-Assad, despite CNN’s reporting on Wednesday that the administration was considering a change in strategy on that front.

“Yes, it is a longer-term part of this to find a stable government and leaders in Syria to be able to bring some stability to that country” even as the U.S. focuses on ISIS in the immediate term, Hagel said.

The Obama administration has insisted that the operation to fight ISIS would rely on building partner capacity on the ground, training and equipping moderate Syrian rebels and supporting the Iraqi Security Forces and Kurdish Peshmerga fighters.

But for some committee members, this assurance brought further concerns about whether the United States could rely on those partner groups to take on ISIS.

The U.S. has not begun to vet members of the moderate Syrian opposition, some of whom are more preoccupied with toppling al-Assad than taking on ISIS. And the Iraqi Security Forces, already U.S.-trained once before at great cost, initially fled in large numbers as ISIS advanced into northern Iraq.

“Men and women will not fight if they do not have confidence in their leaders,” Hagel said of the earlier breakdown.

But the secretary tried to assure committee members that the new Iraqi government, under Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, would make the changes necessary to strengthen those forces, and both officials said the future of the conflict, on the whole, looks bright.

Still, Dempsey said the campaign to defeat ISIS will inevitably follow a pattern of “three steps forward, two steps back.”

“And at every step forward or back,” he added, “we’ll debate about the size of the step.”