On Sept. 16, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey testified before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee on the Pentagon’s response to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Perhaps the most significant admission by the U.S.’s top defense officials during the hearing was that American “close combat” advisors could be ordered into the ground fight if Iraqi and Kurdish forces attempt what Dempsey described as a “complex operation” such as retaking the Iraqi city of Mosul from ISIL. This revelation is a marked shift away from the repeated assurances by U.S. President Barack Obama that American ground troops will not return to combat in Iraq.

In his testimony Hagel outlined the four pillars of the government’s integrated response to ISIL.

  • First, the U. S. will broaden its air campaign and systematic airstrikes of areas controlled by ISIL. He specifically highlighted that these efforts were meant to curb the humanitarian crisis in the region and to disrupt ISIL’s tactics.
  • Second, the U.S. will make it a priority to support anti-ISIL troops on the ground, including Iraqi, Kurdish, and Free Syrian Army (FSA) forces. Hagel noted that by the time 150 additional advisors arrive, there will be 1,600 American military personnel in Iraq responding to the ISIL threat, largely in support of local forces. He also noted that the U.S. is continuing to push for a political resolution to the crisis in Syria; the U.S. will not coordinate or cooperate with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as it conducts operations to counter ISIL.
  • Third, the government plans to engage in an all-inclusive approach to prevent ISIL attacks against the U.S. This will include using diplomatic, economic, and other approaches and tools to counter the threat posed by ISIL. Hagel specifically focused on efforts by the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice to counter terrorist recruitment efforts, along with work by the Department of the Treasury to track and prevent funding of ISIL.
  • Fourth, and finally, Hagel reiterated the government’s commitment to providing humanitarian assistance to those who have been displaced by ISIL.

Dempsey added that the military is working to pressure ISIL through a coalition of vetted, well-trained moderate Syrians who will combat ISIL on the ground. The Department of Defense is seeking authority (and $500 million) to train and equip the FSA in its efforts to stop the progression of ISIL within Syria. Part of the training will ensure that the FSA has a responsible chain of command in place and moderate political leaders to guide the FSA’s efforts. Dempsey also defined success as defeating ISIL and stated that “ISIL will ultimately be defeated when their cloak of religious legitimacy is stripped away and the populations on which they have imposed themselves reject them.”

Other notable highlights from the hearing include:

  • At several points during the hearing, Dempsey reiterated that while American military personnel are currently serving in a strictly advisory capacity (aside from those conducting air strikes), circumstances are evolving. If fighting reached a point where he thought American combat troops were necessary to support Iraqi, Kurdish, or FSA forces, he would request them. He specifically stated that such additional ground troop support might be necessary if, or when, Iraqi Security Forces are prepared to retake Mosul.
  • Hagel said that training 5,000 Syrians over the next year to fight ISIL “is a beginning. This is part of the reason this effort is going to be a long term effort. But we will do it right.” He added that the U.S. will train and equip FSA forces, creating a structure in what will ultimately become a full military unit. He said that there is a chance that more than 5,000 troops can be trained, but that the more important thing was finding the right individuals to train. Dempsey said that estimates from several months ago indicated that degrading and destroying ISIL may ultimately require 12,000 troops.
  • In response to questions by Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), Hagel attempted to clarify the command structure for anti-ISIL operations. U.S. Army Gen. Lloyd Austin III, Commander of U.S. Central Command, will coordinate military operations, while retired U.S. Marine Corps Gen. John Allen will work in a civilian diplomatic capacity to coordinate the international coalition that has emerged in support of efforts to combat ISIL.
  • In a contentious back-and-forth with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Hagel insisted that the U.S. does not yet need to consider what it would do if Assad’s air force engaged in strikes against FSA troops. Hagel reiterated that the U.S. is going to train FSA forces to fight ISIL, but that they would secondarily serve as a stabilizing force in Syria.
  • Dempsey indicated that the greatest risks facing operations against ISIL are that: (1) the government of Iraq fails to become politically inclusive; (2) the international coalition formed, but doesn’t have the endurance to continue efforts for the next several years; and (3) retribution from ISIL in response to the coalition’s efforts.
  • In response to questioning from Sen. Mark Udall (D-Co.), Hagel said that ISIL has historically been an “associated force” of al-Qaeda, but that over time it has gone on to replace al-Qaeda in some ways. He did not elaborate beyond that statement.
  • Hagel maintained that the President has both the constitutional and statutory authority to move forward with operations against ISIL in Iraq and Syria under the AUMF. Several senators, and in particular Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), challenged the idea that the President could (or should) act without a new AUMF for the campaign to degrade and destroy ISIL in the coming months and years.