Gen. Martin Dempsey On Iraq: A Fight That Will Take 'Multiple Years'
Gen. Martin Dempsey has spent more than a decade dealing with Iraq, and as his tenure as chairman of the Joint Chiefs winds down, he sees a conflict that will long outlast his time in uniform.
Dempsey helped train the Iraqi military from 2005 to 2007 in what he describes as a "debacle" in the early stages. He saw the rapid rise of the self-described Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. And now he oversees the U.S.-led bombing campaign against the extremist group in both Iraq and Syria.
And he has no illusions it will be quick or easy.
"I have a pragmatic assessment of what's achievable and over what period of time in a place like Iraq," Dempsey told NPR host Melissa Block in an interview. "I'm not surprised there's been this back and forth in the early stages of what will be a long campaign."
Dempsey, 63, will wrap up his current post — and his 41-year military career — in September.
While the U.S. ended its ground combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan under Dempsey's watch, it remains a time of major challenges: the unraveling of Arab states from Libya to Yemen, Russian aggression in Ukraine, and a more muscular China asserting itself in the South China Sea.
Here are the interview highlights:
On why the Iraqi military has fared so poorly:
I've got some history, as you know, with the Iraqi security forces going all the way back to the very beginning, when we tried to establish a security force in the 2003-04 time and then again from 2005 to 2007. I've actually seen them exhibit the will to fight. The real question, I think that Secretary [Ashton] Carter was contemplating was, 'What do they have the will to fight for?' In other words, 'For what will they fight?' and not, 'Do they have the will to fight?' And it's an important distinction.
And I think it gets at the state of Iraq today where you've got three things that are kind of converging. One is that governance is being established very slowly. They have not yet achieved a national unity government. There is this Sunni-Shia rivalry going on and then, internal to Islam, there is a definite rivalry or competition between moderate elements and radical elements. And all three of those things, as they intersect, make for an environment which would test the resolve of any security force.
On whether Iraq's military should be stronger at this stage:
I have a pragmatic assessment of what's achievable and over what period of time in a place like Iraq that is suffering from those intersecting challenges that I described. From the very beginning, if anyone was to go back and look at anything I've said about ISIL and about security and stability in Iraq, they would have heard me describe it in terms of multiple years. And it seems to me its been playing out that way.
I'm not surprised there's been this back and forth in the early stages of what will be a long campaign.
On training the Iraqi troops from 2005-7
When I was doing that training mission back in '05 to '07 ... and frankly, the first few times that we did that, it was a debacle. They just weren't able to come together as coherent units, the leaders weren't leading, they considered themselves to be entitled, they didn't understand that leaders actually have to serve the forces that reside under them.
By the time 2007 came along we had identified a group of leaders who we believed had the right instincts to be leaders and the right character. And we began to see improvement in the Iraqi security forces.
Now a lot of those leaders have been purged, or were purged, in the period of 2009 and 2012 or so when Prime Minister [Nouri] al-Maliki created some real vulnerabilities in the security forces by the appointment of leaders who were loyal to him but may not have had the skills necessary to truly lead the Iraqi security forces.
You can train someone to shoot a rifle in about a week. You can train someone to maneuver, to enter a village and cordon and search a bunch of buildings, you can do that in about a month. But it takes a long time to build a leader.
On the U.S. bombing campaign:
When we started the campaign, they were moving with relative impunity across both eastern Syria and western Iraq and they certainly can't move with impunity now because they are targeted. So they are disrupted, both in terms of their ability to command and control and to resupply themselves. But they've also demonstrated a certain resiliency and the ability to recruit.
The most important line of effort is not the military line of effort, although the military line of effort remains important, it's the governance line of effort. Because when the populations of Syria and Iraq believe that their future is guaranteed through the government of Iraq and not in spite of it, that's when you'll start to see ISIL begin to move toward actual defeat.
On the ISIS takeover of Ramadi in Iraq:
It does seem clear, even now, that a few hundred ISIL were able to convince a few thousand of the (Iraqi Security Forces) to withdraw from Ramadi. And they did so because they felt themselves at a tactical disadvantage. They'd also been out on there at the front end of this thing for quite a while and didn't feel the level of support that they needed to feel from Baghdad.
On the fighting in Syria:
I'm not sure there's much more Assad could do that would cause us to be any more displeased with what he's done to Syria and the Syrian people. Our strategy, as you know, is to build a moderate opposition that can be responsive to some future Syrian political structure.
The future of Syria doesn't run through Assad. ... Assad, through the actions of the regime, has lost legitimacy among the Syrian people and that Syria will no longer be Syria under the governance of the Assad regime. So the question is how will it all sort out and that is the subject of diplomacy.
On his legacy:
Any legacy that any chairman would aspire to grasp would have something to do with the incredible young men and women that serve in uniform and their families and keeping faith with them. And what that means is that we will only ask them to do missions that are important enough for them to risk their lives, that they'll be well supported, the best trained, the best equipped and the best led force on the planet.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
And we begin this hour in conversation with the president's top military advisor. General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will be stepping down this fall after serving four years. In that time, we've see the sudden rise of the Islamic State, the continued downward spiral in Syria, also Russian aggression in Ukraine and a more muscular China asserting military rights in the South China Sea. General Dempsey joins us now from the Pentagon. Welcome back to the program.
GENERAL MARTIN DEMPSEY: Good to be back.
BLOCK: And General Dempsey, that's a pretty bleak global picture the way I've framed it. Am I wrong?
DEMPSEY: Well, thanks for sharing that with me. I hadn't thought about it...
BLOCK: (Laughter). In quite those terms?
DEMPSEY: ...In quite those terms, yeah. No, actually - the way I describe it is that we live in a period of time where, for the first time in my career, we're actually facing potential state threats - that is to say, state actors and, of course, non-state actors as you describe the Islamic States of Iraq and the Levant - ISIL. So we have a - kind of an environment of increasing disorder to be sure. And in the face of some of the budget constraints we're actually working through, I would also suggest we have some eroding military advantage. And so that makes for a pretty challenging environment.
BLOCK: Well, let's talk about some of those arenas. And first, I want to ask you about Iraq because we've seen Islamic State forces overpower Iraqi government forces, seizing more territory, most recently, the city of Ramadi, where Iraqi troops just melted away. They actually drove away even though they vastly outnumbered the ISIS fighters. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter recently said that the Iraqi forces haven't developed the will to fight. And I wonder if you agree with him.
DEMPSEY: Well, I've got some history, as you know, with the Iraqi security forces. I've actually seen them exhibit the will to fight. The real question, I think, that Secretary Carter was contemplating was, what do they have the will to fight for? In other words, for what will they fight, not, do they have the will to fight? And that's an important distinction.
And I think it gets at the state of Iraq today, where you've got three things that are kind of converging. One is that the - that governance is being established very slowly. They have not yet achieved a national unity government. There is this Sunni-Shia rivalry going on. And then - and internal to Islam, there's a definite - let's call it rivalry or competition between moderate elements and radical elements. And all three of those things, as they intersect, make for an environment which would test the resolve of any security force.
BLOCK: But would you have expected to see a different result by this point with so much U.S. involvement, so much U.S. training over the years?
DEMPSEY: Again, because of my experiences there, I would suggest to you that I have a pragmatic assessment of what's achievable and over what periods of time in a place like Iraq that is suffering from those intersecting challenges that I described. And so, you know, from the very beginning, if anyone were to go back and look at anything I've said about ISIL and about security and stability in Iraq, they would've heard me describe it in terms of multiple years. And that seems to me to be playing out that way. And therefore, I think this is going to take time, and so I'm not surprised that there's been this back and forth here in the early stages of what will be a long campaign.
BLOCK: You were in charge of training, I think, back from '05 to '07. Do I have those dates right?
DEMPSEY: I was.
BLOCK: Training Iraqi forces - when you say it would take - it will take time, how much time should it take?
DEMPSEY: You know, I wouldn't be among those that might put a definite end date on it as sometimes we do. But I mean, I'll just give you some personal vignettes. When I was doing that training mission back in '05 to '07, we built a training range at a place called Besmaya east of Baghdad and brought Iraqi forces out there to do training. And as we did, we were trying to identify, from within the ranks, leaders who could be reliable and who could be courageous and who could be credible with their - the soldiers they were leading. And frankly, the first few times that we did that, it was a debacle. I mean, they just weren't able to come together as coherent units. The leaders weren't leading. They considered themselves to be entitled. They didn't understand that leaders actually have to serve the forces that reside under them.
By the time 2007 came along, we had identified a group of leaders who we believed had the right instincts to be leaders and the right character. The point being, you can train someone to shoot a rifle in about a week. You can train someone to enter a village and cordon and search a bunch of buildings. You can do that in about a month, but it takes a long time to build a leader. And so I think what you're seeing here is the fundamental vulnerability of the Iraqi security forces is a vulnerability in tactical leadership. And we're working with them on that, but it's going to take time.
BLOCK: Apart from the training, let's talk about coalition airstrikes in Iraq and Syria. There've been thousands since last August against Islamic State targets. Is there any evidence that that air campaign is working?
DEMPSEY: Yeah, there is, and it's not measured in terms of casualties produced but rather in terms of disruption to command and control, disruption to their ability to resupply themselves. If you recall, when we started the campaign, they were moving with relative impunity across both Eastern Syria and Western Iraq, and they certainly can't move with impunity now because they're targeted. And so they are disruption both in terms of their ability to command and control and to resupply themselves, but they've also demonstrated a certain resiliency and the ability to recruit, in particular, with a significant skill that they display in the social media.
BLOCK: If though - let me just follow up on the point. If command and control was so severely disrupted, couldn't you make the argument that those few - relatively few Islamic State fighters should never have gotten near Ramadi in the first place?
DEMPSEY: Well, look. When I talk about disrupting command and control, I'm talking about the ability of ISIL leaders in places like Al-Raqqah in Eastern Syria to communicate freely, to interact with ISIL leaders that may be in Mosul or may be in parts of al-Anbar Province. A small tactical action - the Ramadi fight was a relatively small tactical action, but those kind of tactical command and control issues have, in some cases, been affected by the airstrikes and in some cases, have not. It really depends on our ability to generate the intelligence and the precision so that we know we're actually hitting the proper targets - the ISIL targets - rather than other tribal elements or popular mobilization forces.
I mean, look. These forces generally don't actively seek to identify themselves to us. That is to say, ISISLs - you know, the days of ISIL rolling around in convoys of 50 vehicles with black flags flying and iPhones recording their movements to be posted on YouTube are gone. They're moving much more tactically now because the airstrikes have been effective. But the intermingling of these different groups on the ground, most of whom are uniforms that are indistinguishable and unidentifiable to us, makes the use of air power challenging.
BLOCK: That's General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Our conversation continues tomorrow on the program. We'll talk about the war in Syria. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.