Flying home from Brussels last week in a silver trailer fastened to the inside of a C-17 cargo jet, the U.S. military’s top general appeared in an easygoing mood. He had just spent two days meeting with his counterparts from other NATO nations, and was traveling to a submarine base in Kings Bay, Georgia.
So when Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was asked about the state of operations against the Islamic State terrorist group, he was blunt. He rejected the notion that he, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and other U.S. officials have adopted a strategy that is too reactive — gradually increasing the number of U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria whenever bad news dictates.
“From my perspective, people are looking at the increases [in troop numbers] in Iraq as, you know, we are putting Band-Aids on and that it’s incremental,” said Dunford. “In fact, we’ve said from the very beginning — and you can go back to Secretary Carter and I testifying in October — we said that we are looking for opportunities to reinforce success, and we are looking for places where we can put in capabilities to accelerate Iraqi progress. That’s the criteria for putting more forces on the ground — not, ‘Things are going bad; we need more forces.'”
The comments came Thursday as Iraqi forces were retaking the desert town of Rutbah in western Anbar province following a two-day battle with the Islamic State. They did so during a week in which Baghdad, some 240 miles to the east, was rocked by numerous explosions that killed hundreds of people. The carnage has raised questions about whether the Iraqi military will pull more of its troops back toward the capital rather than the preferred U.S. plan: preparing for an assault on Mosul, the Islamic State’s de facto capital in Iraq.
On Monday, the Iraqi military took another step that analysts say could stall the operation to take back Mosul, launching an assault on the city of Fallujah in Anbar province. Just 40 miles west of Baghdad, it was the site of fierce fighting that killed more than 100 U.S. troops in two battles in 2004, and was captured by the Islamic State in January 2014, five months before Mosul fell.
Asked about what an assault on Fallujah could mean, Dunford said the Iraqis can continue to prepare for Mosul while simultaneously taking “appropriate action” in Baghdad and carrying out operations in Anbar province. Operations in Fallujah, he said, are aimed at trying to prevent Fallujah from being a threat to Baghdad.
But U.S. sights are still clearly set on taking back Mosul, and Dunford believes that doing so remains Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s top priority. The Pentagon announced last month that he would boost the number of U.S. military advisers in Iraq by 217 for the mission, putting the official number of U.S. troops in the country over 4,000. Dunford said not all of the additional 217 service members have arrived in Iraq yet, but they are trickling in “consistent with the mission they’re going to perform.”
Their deployment gets back to the general’s disagreement with the “idea of incrementalism,” as he put it. President Barack Obama has not denied any recommendations for additional forces from military leaders since Dunford took over as chairman of the Joint Chiefs in the fall, he said. The Pentagon intends to continue altering the number of troops in Iraq based on the operations that are coming.
“We don’t want them there too late, and we don’t want them there too early,” Dunford said. “We want them there on time. We want them to get there where they are involved in training and stay with them as they prepare for operations in Mosul, which is the concept right now in terms of force generation.”