The highest-ranking U.S. military officer told lawmakers that a force of 80,000 “competent” Iraqi troops is necessary to retake Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, and other territory lost to Islamic State jihadists.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, estimated that there are between 15,000 and 18,000 “core” Islamic State (IS, also known as ISIS and ISIL) fighters, with two-thirds of them in Syria and the rest in Iraq.
“We’re going to need about 80,000 competent Iraqi security forces to recapture the territory lost, and eventually the city of Mosul, to restore the border,” the general told the House Armed Services Committee on November 13. “And we’re on path to conduct that training.”
An additional 1,500 U.S. forces already approved by President Obama are expected to be deployed to Iraq “over the coming months, in a non-combat role, to expand our advise and assist mission and initiate a comprehensive training effort for Iraqi forces,” according to the Pentagon.
If Congress approves the additional troops, the new deployment would bring the number of American forces already in Iraq to nearly 3,100.
During the House panel hearing, Gen. Dempsey estimated that there could be as many as 18,000 “core” ISIS fighters, noting that the CIA has placed ISIS’s overall manpower strength at high range of approximately 31,000.
“The intel community does put kind of a band around it — at one point 21 to 31,000,” the top U.S. general told lawmakers. “Frankly, I think that includes groups that they may have scooped up along the way…so I would suggest to you that the core group of ideological ISIL — probably about two-thirds of them are in Syria and about a third of them in Iraq and in total is probably 15 to 18,000.”
During the hearing, Gen. Dempsey mentioned that the U.S. military is considering having American soldiers accompany their Iraqi counterparts on ground 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 U.S. forces, but we’re certainly considering it,” Dempsey told the House panel.
On November 15, Defense Secretary Hagel, in an interview with CNN, indicated that he would consider a ground troops recommendation from Dempsey.
Dempsey told lawmakers that a recommendation that would entail “low-risk” to U.S. forces in Iraq would include boots on the ground.
“A low-risk option to the campaign would probably include the introduction of U.S. ground forces to take control of the fight,” explained the general.
“Neither Gen. [Lloyd] Austin nor I, and certainly the Secretary of Defense believe that’s the right thing to do at this point,” continued Dempsey.
Gen. Austin is in charge of the United States military command that covers Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan.
Dempsey asserted that there is no gap between recommendations from the chiefs of staff and the actions the president is taking against ISIS. He said the president has accepted the recommendations from the military chiefs.
Despite $25 billion in U.S. aid and training, Iraqi forces failed when confronted with a much smaller ISIS force last summer.
On November 14, Kurdish media outlet Rudaw noted that an estimated 1,200 ISIS jihadists were able to seize Mosul from “60,000 troops — although the Iraqi army was rife with corruption, absenteeism and low morale after years of mismanagement and sectarian policies under former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.”
Current Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi fired 26 military chiefs on November 12 “for corruption and incompetence, forcing ten more into retirement, including Kurdish chief of staff of the Iraqi Army, Babakir Zebari,” Rudaw reported.
Reuters contributed to this report.