White House seeks to assure no U-turn in ISIS fight

White House seeks to assure no U-turn in ISIS fight
A woman protesting against US military action in Iraq as Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel (left) and General Martin Dempsey testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday.

Remarks from a top general that appeared to contradict a key tenet of President Barack Obama have caused a stir in the US capital, forcing the White House press secretary and the general's own spokesman to issue clarifications.

Testifying before lawmakers on Tuesday, General Martin Dempsey - chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, the highest-ranking officer in the US armed forces - left open the door to deploying American combat troops against ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) should strikes not go to plan.

"My view at this point is that this coalition is the appropriate way forward," Gen Dempsey told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

"I believe that will prove true. If it fails to be true and there are threats to the US, then of course, I would go back to the President and make the recommendation that may include the use of US military ground forces."

His comments - a week after Mr Obama outlined an ISIS strategy that required no "boots on the ground" - seemed to mark a U-turn, pushing the United States closer to a riskier combat role in the region.

They also raised questions on whether there is a rift between the administration and military at a time when it is critical that both sides present a united front.

Gen Dempsey acknowledged at the hearing that the combat option was off the table but said he was given leeway to come back with different recommendations on a case-by-case basis.

The frank testimony was followed quickly by statements from the administration stressing that there was no contradiction.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the general's remarks were strictly related to a hypothetical scenario.

"It's the responsibility of the President's military advisers to plan and consider all the wide range of contingencies. It's also the responsibility of the Commander-in-Chief to set out a clear policy... That policy has not changed," he said.

Still, the remarks clearly struck a chord and were the main point of discussion across US news outlets on a day when the President also outlined his strategy to tackle the Ebola crisis.

Mr Obama had rejected a proposal to allow military advisers to follow Iraqi forces into the combat zone during a recent campaign to retake Mosul Dam. The army then used a land-based drone, or Rover, while its military advisers remained in the base.

That episode has prompted speculation that the army still prefers to be able to send in combat troops. The "boots on the ground" issue has been a controversial one thus far with different quarters opposed to and supportive of Mr Obama's position.

Senator James Inhofe, a ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, argues that it is a false distinction being made by the administration.

"We should ask the pilots dropping bombs over Iraq whether they think they are in combat, pilots who face the real threat of having to eject over ISIS-held territory. I'm not advocating an army division or combat elements on the ground, but it is foolhardy for the Obama administration to tie the hands and so firmly rule out the possibility of air controllers and special operators on the ground to direct air strikes and advise fighter forces," he said.

But, showing how hard it is for Mr Obama to strike a balance, the Senate hearing dominated by hawkish voices was interrupted midway by heckling anti-war protesters in the public gallery.


This article was first published on Sep 18, 2014.
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