Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, left, and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, hold a press briefing Aug. 21 at the Pentagon . (Saul Loeb / AFP)
ABOARD A U.S. MILITARY AIRCRAFT — U.S. airstrikes on Islamic militants in Iraq have blunted their momentum, but defeating them will require a broad regional approach that draws support from Iraq’s neighbors and includes political and diplomatic efforts, the top U.S. military officer said.
The long-term strategy for defeating the militants includes having the U.S. and its allies reach out to Iraq’s neighbors, including Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Sunday.
“This is not just about us,” Dempsey said.
Such a coalition could “squeeze ISIS from multiple directions in order to initially disrupt it and eventually defeat it,” he said.
The militant group Islamic State, also known as ISIS, has shown itself to be so brutal that Iraq and the U.S. should be able to find “willing partners” to join efforts to defeat the militants, he said.
But military power won’t be enough, Dempsey said. The strategy must take a comprehensive approach that includes political and diplomatic efforts to address the grievances of millions of Sunnis who have felt disenfranchised by Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government, he said.
The Islamic State had capitalized on the discontent of Sunnis to win support among some segments of the population in Iraq. The U.S. said it plans to expand support for Iraq’s government as it shows signs of building a more inclusive government. Iraq’s Parliament has nominated a new prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, who has pledged to build a new, more inclusive government that will address the concerns of Sunnis and other groups.
“Unless all those things come together military power won’t make a difference,” Dempsey said. “There has to be political, diplomatic, regional, aggressive outreach to those Sunnis to convince them that ISIS is not the path to their future.”
Military power will be part of the strategy and the U.S. has sent military teams to Iraq to assess the effectiveness of Iraq’s armed forces. The teams have given the Pentagon a window into the effectiveness of units within Iraq’s armed forces, Dempsey said. About four divisions of Iraq’s military collapsed in June when the Islamic State seized Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city.
“We’ve got a pretty good idea of which ones we can actually assist and enable should they decide to go on the offensive,” Dempsey said.
Administration officials have cautioned that the process in Iraq will be a long one, and that airstrikes alone will not be sufficient to address the root causes of the conflict. The current U.S. airstrikes are limited to protecting U.S. personnel in Iraq and enabling delivery of humanitarian support. The targets so far have been readily identifiable from the air and militant targets have been far from Iraqi forces, making targeting simpler.
Airstrikes in the future could grow more complex if Iraq’s conventional forces begin a broad offensive to take back territory, since a large number of Iraqi forces could be in contact with the militants.
“If you get into a situation where these forces converge, it will be more difficult,” Dempsey said.
The U.S. has launched 96 airstrikes on Islamic State positions since the U.S. air campaign began Aug. 8. The airstrikes have been concentrated in northern Iraq, where they helped support efforts to relieve pressure on the Yazidis, a religious minority who were trapped on a mountain surrounded by militants, and prevented Irbil, the capital of the Kurdish region, from falling to the militants.
The airstrikes also aided a successful effort by an Iraqi and Kurdish ground offensive to retake the Mosul Dam that had been seized by Islamic State militants. U.S. Central Command said 62 airstrikes have hit targets in support of Iraqi forces near the dam.
“I think we’ve broken ISIS momentum,” Dempsey said. “Their psychological impact was nearly as important as their physical impact. We’ve stripped away some of the mythology of ISIS as impregnable.”