Joint Chiefs Chairman Doesn’t Rule Out U.S. Ground Troops In ISIS Fight

So much for the President's promise about 'no ground troops.'

General Martin Dempsy

In a hearing today before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey did not rule out the possibility that American troops might play a role on the ground in the fight against ISIS, although he did say that the did not believe they were necessary at this time:

WASHINGTON — Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress on Tuesday that he would recommend deploying United States combat forces against Islamic extremists in specific operations if the current strategy of airstrikes was not successful, raising the possibility of the kind of escalation that President Obama has flatly ruled out.

General Dempsey said that the ground forces would likely be Special Operations commands who could call in airstrikes from the ground.

In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, he said that while he was confident in the ability of the coalition of American, European and Middle Eastern governments to stop the Islamic State, he could not completely close the door to eventually asking Mr. Obama to commit ground troops to fight the group, known as ISIS or ISIL.

“My view at this point is that this coalition is the appropriate way forward. I believe that will prove true,” he said. “But if it fails to be true, and if there are threats to the United States, then I of course would go back to the president and make a recommendation that may include the use of U.S. military ground forces.”

Dempsey got somewhat more specific on the conditions under which the use of American ground troops in a might become possible:

In the case of our contributions in Iraq right now, the airmen, as the ranking member mentioned, are very much in a combat role. The folks on the ground are very much in a combat advisory role. They are not participating in direct combat. There’s no intention for them do so.

I’ve mentioned, though, if I found that circumstance evolving that I would, of course, change my recommendation. An example: If the Iraqi security forces and the [Kurdish Peshmerga] were at some point ready to retake Mosul — a mission that I would find to be extraordinarily complex — it could very well be part of that particular mission to provide close combat advising or accompanying for that mission.

But, for the day-to-day activities I anticipate will evolve over time, I don’t see it to be necessary right now.

Dempsey’s statements are probably not nearly as controversial or ground breaking as the media is likely to make them out to be. After all, it is his job to propose military options to the President in situations such as this and, regardless of what the political consequences of what that decision might be, it would be irresponsible of him and the rest of the military to neglect to advise the President of the options of using American ground forces in the admittedly limited manner described here. Whether or not to take that step, or to perhaps utilize some other option presented by his military advisers is a decision that the President alone makes. So, when he’s saying that he could conceive of situations where he might recommend to the President that he authorize some deployment of American forces into a ground combat role, Dempsey is really just saying what you’d expect him to say in such a situation. If he had answered that there was no conceivable situation where he would recommend ground troops then he wouldn’t be doing the job that he’s supposed to be doing, which is to present the President with viable military alternatives and then carry out the President’s orders even if they are different from his recommendations.

Despite this caveat, Dempsey’s comments do raise some concerns about the representations that the Administration has made about their plan to fight ISIS and once again point out the need for Congress to become involved. Both in the President’s speech last Wednesday and in repeated comments from White House officials both before then and afterwards, the Administration has made clear that the President’s plan does not involve or contemplate the use of American ground troops. Given the fact the two linchpins of that plan, an international coalition and the so-called “moderate” Syrian rebels, are quite dubious at best, though, these assertions that there would not be ground troops seem to be little more than wishful thinking on the part of the Obama White House. At the very least, the fact that the Pentagon is contemplating the possibility of a ground combat role for American troops, even on a limited basis, suggests strongly that the Administration’s promises shouldn’t be taken seriously.

Additionally, if the commitment we are making today contemplates the possibility of a ground combat role in the future, then it seems essential that the President seek Congressional authorization for proceeding forward. It is clear that the President intends to move beyond the humanitarian role that our airstrikes amount Mount Singar last month played, and beyond the supposed justification of protecting American personnel that was used to justify other airstrikes. As the President said in his speech last week, the United States is now dedicated to degrading and destroying ISIS. The Administration may call this “counterterrorism,” but it sounds an awful lot like a war to me and if this President is going to commit us to yet another war in Iraq then the representatives of the people need to perform their Constitutional duty.

FILED UNDER: Congress, Military Affairs, National Security, US Politics, , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Neil Hudelson says:

    Dempsey’s statements are probably not nearly as controversial or ground breaking as the media is likely to make them out to be.

    Kind of like having an article with a tag line of “So much for the president’s promise?”

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    Ruling things out isn’t the Joint Chiefs’ job. The executive sets the objectives and the constraints. The military provides a plan to achieve the objectives within the constraints and, hopefully, to explain to the executive any risks incurred as a consequence of the constraints.

  3. steve says:

    What Dave said. This does not really merit coverage.


  4. Mikey says:

    At the very least, the fact that the Pentagon is contemplating the possibility of a ground combat role for American troops, even on a limited basis, suggests strongly that the Administration’s promises shouldn’t be taken seriously.

    So even if the situation in the area of operations changes dramatically, the President’s hands should be tied by a “promise” he made weeks or months earlier?

    The word for that would be “stupid.”

    If there are to be airstrikes in support of Iraqi and Kurdish forces retaking Mosul, there will have to be American JTACs on the ground to provide coordination and final control. There’s no other way to minimize the risks to the supported forces when they are in contact with ISIS. They will be special operations JTACs because this kind of assistance is one of their missions.

  5. beth says:

    So…military chief thinks best course of action would be full use of all military..did not totally see that coming. What’s that old expression about when all you have is a hammer…

  6. anjin-san says:

    This does not really merit coverage

    Unless your only objective is to make Obama look bad.

  7. JohnMcC says:

    Somewhat the reverse of Gen Shinseki’s widely remembered advice to the previous administration. Straight advice is pretty much the job of the Chairman of the JCS. Let’s see how long Gen Dempsey continues in that job. General Shinseki’s testimony came on 25 Feb 03 and he retired on 11 June, for a baseline number.

  8. dazedandconfused says:


    Listen to the actual hearing and discover just how misleading FOX News talking points can be.

    Near the end, Ted “Bomb them to Hell” Cruz tries to bait him into saying how much would he need to “solve” this in “90 days”. Dempsey replied no amount would serve, because it can’t be solved by the US military. His belief is that unless the population they hide in rejects them and does it, we would simply be pushing them left, right, or underground.

  9. President Camacho says:

    I really hope we can send a people there for an indefinite period of time, with no real withdrawal plan or endstate, spend money we don’t have (heaven forbid we tax all the people who “support the troops”), leave and watch it all crumble again. This is much more beneficial than say schools, border security, port security – how about we just track a few people who overstay their visas like the 9/11 commission recommended.

    Before we take on the big problems, can we get the smaller ones correct first?

  10. Moosebreath says:

    @President Camacho:

    “I really hope we can send a people there for an indefinite period of time”

    Can we have a vote on who we send? I’ll nominate John McCain and Lindsey Graham.

  11. DrDaveT says:

    Plus, remember — special ops forces apparently don’t count as “boots on the ground”. They’re more like sneaky ninja shoes…

  12. michael reynolds says:

    I don’t recall seeing Doug’s plan for what, if anything, to do about ISIS or the broader mideast. I may have missed it. But there remains an amazing absence of counter-proposals from the folks who all have a nit to pick with Mr. Obama’s plans.

  13. Eric Florack says:

    Dont Barry’s promises always come with an experation date attached?
    You can keep your doctor?
    My administration will be transparent?
    we arent needed in Iraq anymore?

  14. anjin-san says:

    @ Florack

    You can keep your doctor?
    My administration will be transparent?
    we arent needed in Iraq anymore?

    I’m in awe of the courage it took for you to type those words.

    You are my hero.

  15. michael reynolds says:

    @Eric Florack:
    I assume you’ve seen that the Free Syrian Army has very convincingly shot down the notion that they have a pact with ISIS and are therefore ready to alter your position in keeping with the facts.


    As for Obamacare, give it up dude. It’s working. None of the predictions if disaster have occurred which is why your party has stopped talking about it.

  16. Tyrell says:

    With all respect to General Dempsey, I think it would be interesting to get some opinions of generals from WWII and the Korean War. I realize that leaders like Generals Eisenhower, Marshall, McArthur, Lemay, Bradley, and Haig are no longer around, but it would be interesting to get some idea from their books and papers how they would handle something like this ISIS group.
    I do believe that presidents and members of Congress should have military service.

  17. Just 'nutha' ig'rant cracker says:

    @anjin-san: Well, maybe not your ONLY objective. You could also be paving the way for supporting the next Libertarian candidate via the “a pox on both their houses” route.

    After all, both sides are equally guilty–but the Democrats are MORE equally guilty.

  18. Just 'nutha' ig'rant cracker says:

    @Tyrell: I’m not even sure that groups such as ISIS were in the conceptual framework of the leaders that you suggest looking to the writings of. It’s possible that their response to a force such as ISIS would have been “the CIA should have taken care of this while it was small” or “which side are they on ours or Stalins.”

  19. dazedandconfused says:


    The guy you want out of that group is Marshall, but the guy you really want is TE Lawrence.

  20. Robin Cohen says:

    @Mikey: Let every able bodied Iraqi go first. No more hiding under cars. And as for those arab countries who will not fight, cut off all of their foreign aid and let them rot .i.e, Jordan ,Turkey, Egypt. Useless parasites.

  21. anjin-san says:

    @ Robin Cohen

    those arab countries who will not fight, cut off all of their foreign aid and let them rot .i.e, Jordan ,Turkey

    Turkey is not an Arab country. You might want to lean a few basic facts about the region before jumping in and making a fool of yourself.

  22. Tyrell says:

    @Robin Cohen: General Dempsey has now said that only about 40% of the Iraqi force is even capable or fit to be in any sort of combat against ISIS. It will take some time to train, equip, brief, and move this group. Who is left to pick up the slack. Sec. Kerry says that ISIS must be defeated, not just contained or surrounded. Defeated means no longer able to fight, or imprisoned.

  23. Robin Cohen says:

    @Tyrell: I hear you. It just pisses me off that after so many years of training those lazy, ignorant bastards we STILL have to change their diapers. So now we have to do it yet AGAIN! Let the Iraqi treasury pay the US to do the heavy lifting, unless they don’t want to survive. A million years of free oil would be nice. We need to MAKE THEM PAY instead of draining our treasury further. Assholes.