Key Obama administration advisers appear at odds over the use of American boots on the ground in Iraq, as Islamic State militants – at the very least – seemed to be holding their own against U.S.-led airstrikes and local security forces.
Asked in an interview on Sunday about a request from an official in Iraq’s Anbar Province for ground troops, National Security Adviser Susan Rice stressed that no American military commander has recommended “ground combat forces” in Iraq.
“That's not come up the chain to anybody at the White House. And I don't anticipate that it will,” Rice said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
She said President Obama “has been very plain that this is not a campaign that requires or even would benefit from American ground troops in combat again. … The Iraqis have to be in the lead.”
Few would argue against the Iraqis taking the lead in preventing the Islamic State, or ISIS, from threatening their government -- but Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey continued to keep the door open to additional U.S. boots on the ground on Sunday.
Asked whether it would be more effective to have U.S. troops on the ground spotting targets, Dempsey said: “Yeah, there will be circumstances when the answer to that question will likely be yes. But I haven't encountered one right now.”
Speaking on ABC’s “This Week,” he cited as an example the fight for the city of Mosul, calling it likely “the decisive battle in the ground campaign at some point in the future.”
He said that when Iraqi security forces are ready to go back on the offensive, “My instinct at this point is that that will require a different kind of advising and assisting, because of the complexity of that fight.”
The comments reflect the internal debate inside the administration over how deeply to engage U.S. troops in the fight against ISIS. Dempsey caused a stir in Washington last month by suggesting publicly that U.S. ground forces could be used.
The White House clarified that the only scenario Obama would consider is putting U.S. troops in "forward-deployed positions" to advise Iraqi forces – and Obama would not consider putting them in a “combat role.”
In the interview aired Sunday, Dempsey was talking mainly about an advisory role, though Rice did not mention such a possibility.
Pete Hegseth, Fox News contributor and CEO of Concerned Veterans for America, said the interviews reveal the “disconnect” between the mission of destroying ISIS and the capability on the ground.
He said Dempsey understands that in order to go on offense in Anbar Province and the Syrian border town of Kobani, where ISIS troops are engaged in a major battle against Kurdish forces, U.S. advisers will be needed on the ground.
U.S. and allied nations launched another round of airstrikes against Islamic State targets on Sunday in Kobani. According to the Defense Department, bomber and fighter aircraft launched eight strikes, hitting various ISIS locations.
But ISIS continues to make gains inside both countries. Dempsey, in the same interview on Sunday, said the militants came within 15 miles of the Baghdad airport after overrunning Iraqi forces, but Apache helicopters were for the first time called in to stop the extremists’ “straight shot to the airport.”
Dempsey said he does not think Baghdad is in imminent jeopardy of being overrun but said individual members have infiltrated the surrounding Sunni population.
Lawmakers, meanwhile, are voicing doubts about the U.S. approach.
“ISIS is winning,” Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., told Fox Business Network on Sunday. He said that while that hurts Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the U.S. needs to stay focused on going after the Islamic State.
"First of all, they're winning and we're not," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., speaking on CNN's "State of the Union," said of ISIS. "There has to be a fundamental re-evaluation of what we're doing because we are not, we are not degrading and ultimately destroying ISIS."