Mattis: Boots on the ground must remain an option in Iraq

Former commander of the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) Gen. James Mattis, USMC (Ret.), testifies before a House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence full committee hearing on the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), al-Qa'ida, and other Islamic extremists, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Sept. 18, 2014. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

The former Marine head of U.S. Central Command warned a congressional panel Thursday that a refusal to consider putting boots on the ground in Iraq could weaken the allied military commitment, particularly of other Arab nations, to fight the Islamic State.

Retired Gen. James Mattis, appearing with former ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker before the House Intelligence Committee, said it was crucial that the U.S. “take our own side” in the fight against the violent extremists, and not restrict military capabilities from the outset.

“You don’t tell your adversary in advance what you’re not going to do,” Mattis said. “We have the most skillful, the fiercest and the most ethical ground force in the world, and I don’t think we should reassure the enemy in advance that they’re never going to face them.”

The hearing came the day after the U.S. House voted to approve a measure that would provide arms and training for Syrian rebels committed to fighting the Islamic State threat. The U.S. has been conducting air strikes on the group for over a month and has committed more than 1,000 troops in advisory roles, but President Obama has maintained that there will be no U.S. boots on the ground for the fight. He reiterated his intent not to send ground combat troops to Iraq during a speech at U.S. Central Command on Thursday.

Statements like that, Mattis said, can provide undue comfort to the enemy.

The pre-condition, he said, will also send a message to nations that U.S. leaders hope will join a regional fight against the Islamic State. In the Middle East, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan and Qatar are among countries that have made modest commitments to battling IS. Officials have also cited offers of ground support from indigenous forces, including Syrian rebels, Iraqi Kurdish troops and Iraqi forces.

“They are watching America … to see if we’re willing to set the example,” Mattis said. “If they see we are less than committed, that could moderate their enthusiasm for a commitment from their countries. I think if we show that we’re all in, there’s a number that will come.”

Mattis warned that committing to defeat IS would mean “an era of skirmishing over many years,” not a short-term commitment. But, he said, it was important for leaders in Washington, D.C. to determine from the outset what victory looked like against an enemy he called formidable as well as vulnerable.

“I think we have to drive this to a point that the local security forces can handle it on their own,” Mattis said. He said a regional strategy and commitment was needed to keep the Islamic State from falling back into safe havens only to reemerge when western offensives abated.

The failure of Iraqi security forces to prevail after the U.S. withdrawal was due, Crocker said, to a strategy by prime minister Nouri Al-Maliki to award commands to officers based on their loyalty, rather than military prowess or ability to lead.

“It’s no wonder those forces collapsed,” Crocker said. “That’s again the role we need to play; to use our influence to see that officers of proven quality and experience and ability [are in authority].”

By Hope Hodge Seck
Staff writer (Air Force Times)

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