By Army Sgt. 1st Class Tyrone C. Marshall Jr.
DoD News, Defense Media Activity
WASHINGTON, Oct. 30, 2014 – Defense Department leaders today praised the progress made against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in Iraq and Syria as implementation of the broader comprehensive strategy in the Middle East continues.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, discussed progress and strategy during a Pentagon news conference.
Hagel began the news conference by highlighting the recent transfer of two NATO bases – Camp Leatherneck and Camp Bastion -- to Afghan security forces as part of “significant progress” in Afghanistan. He praised U.S. forces for their service in Afghanistan, as well NATO partners, for their contributions.
“I also want to thank our [International Security Assistance Force] partners for what they’ve done,” he said, “and in particular, the Afghan national security forces as they have continued to make progress -- significant progress in defending their country.”
Turning to Iraq, the defense secretary said he spoke with Iraqi Defense Minister Khaled al-Obeidi last week about Iraqi force preparations to take the offensive against ISIL.
Gains in Northern and Central Iraq
“Over the past week, we’ve seen Iraqi and Kurdish forces begin to do that,” Hagel said. “And they’ve made some gains in both northern and central Iraq. Their initial progress is encouraging, but these are just first steps … in what we have said will be a long and difficult multiyear effort against ISIL by the local Iraqi forces on the ground [with] support from the U.S, as well as coalition partners.”
Tomorrow, Hagel said, the U.S. Army’s 1st Infantry Division headquarters will take command in Baghdad, coordinating all U.S. forces in Iraq.
“But our military campaign is only one part of the broader comprehensive strategy required to defeat ISIL,” he said, “choking off its resources and recruits, and supply lines and de-legitimizing its murderous ideology are just as important as [Iraqi] Prime Minister [Haider al] Abadi’s efforts to build an inclusive Iraqi government that must earn the trust and confidence of the Iraqi people.”
The Future of Syria
Hagel said the realities of ISIL controlling vast areas of Syria and Iraq are forcing a coalition of more than 60 countries to come together to deal with this “immediate threat.”
“The future of Syria,” he said, “which the nations of the Middle East have a significant investment in that stability, is going to require all elements, not only of our government, but all of the countries in the Middle East and others working together to find a solution to bring peace in Syria, to stabilize that region of the world.”
Officials constantly are assessing, adapting and working through different options, Hagel said, because the situation is complicated and long-term, and there are no short-term easy answers to it.
“That’s why we meet so often on this issue,” he said. “This is why we are building, and continue to build, an effective coalition in the Middle East to deal with these issues.”
Training and Equipping Moderate Opposition Update
The chairman was asked to provide an update on the status of the department’s program to train and equip the Syrian moderate opposition.
“The command-and-control apparatus is in place,” Dempsey said. “The sites have been selected, and the reconnaissance conducted to determine what infrastructure we’ll need to accomplish the mission.”
Coalition partners are beginning to contribute trainers to the efforts, he added, though the recruiting and vetting has not yet begun.
Expanding Mission Area in Iraq
Dempsey discussed the possibility of expanding the train-advise-assist mission of U.S. forces in Iraq, currently oriented around Irbil and Baghdad, to include Anbar province.
“There’s three components to the train-advise-assist mission,” he explained. “Initially, the Iraqi security forces, and I include in that the [Kurdish peshmerga forces], … mostly oriented around Baghdad and Irbil, and then there’s the issue of the tribes and trying to find a way to … enable them.”
Also, Dempsey said, a program is in place to begin to restore some offensive capability and mindset to Iraqi security forces. “We need to think about how to do that with the tribes,” he added. “We also need to make sure that the Iraqi security forces are not spread out in ways that prevent them from supporting each other.”
Dempsey pointed to areas such as al-Asad, and Iraqi units such as the 7th and 9th Iraqi army divisions, which he said are “somewhat isolated.”
The Iraqi security forces, he said, need help with planning and executing and with linking up groups that are isolated. “And then,” he said, “I think that becomes a platform for reaching out to the tribes.”
The third component, Dempsey said, is the national guard concept, which -- if the Iraqi government takes a decision to form it and passes a law -- probably would begin to be implemented in 2015.
“You need all three of those, eventually,” the chairman said. “Right now, we’re focused on the Iraqi security forces.