Army chief: US should consider embedding troops with Iraqi forces

Army chief: US should consider embedding troops with Iraqi forces
© Anne Wernikoff

If progress stalls against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the U.S. military should start embedding U.S. troops with forces battling the terrorist group in Iraq, said the Army's top military officer on Wednesday.  

"If we find in the next several months that we are not making the progress that we have, we should probably absolutely [consider] embedding some soldiers with them, and see if that would make a difference," Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno said. 

"That doesn't mean there would be fighting, but it would be, you know, maybe abetting them and moving with them. I think that is an option we should present to the president when the time is right," Odierno told reporters at his last Pentagon briefing.

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The four-star general is retiring this month after a 39-year Army career, much of it over the last decade spent commanding forces in Iraq.

Military leaders have said in the past that embedding U.S. troops with Iraqi forces might be recommended for complex operations, such as taking back Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, from ISIS. 

That operation has not begun yet, as Iraqi Security Forces focus first on retaking areas in Anbar province from the terrorist group, which used its safe haven in Syria to launch an offensive into Iraq and capture large swaths of territory last year. 

Odierno called the current situation against ISIS a "stalemate," but said while the group maintains the same numbers it did a year ago, it is less strong than it was before. 

"We have significantly reduced the leaders that were in there and that's what we've done before. So, that makes a difference because now you've got second, third, fourth stringers coming in," he said. 

"The problem we have is that they're still able to stay at 20- to 30,000. That's what's concerning to me. So, they're not as capable as they were a year ago, they're not as capable as they were 18 months ago. But they are still able to recruit, and get people to come in and fight — and that's what's concerning to me," he said.

Odierno stressed that the solution against ISIS is not "solely military," and would include political and economic solutions, as well as an information campaign to defeat ISIS. 

He also said he disagrees with 2016 presidential candidate Donald Trump "right now" on moving into Iraq and bombing oil fields to prevent ISIS from receiving revenue from oil. 

"There's limits with military power," he said. "It's about sustainable outcomes. And the problem we've had, is we've had outcomes, but they have been only short-term outcomes. Because we haven't properly looked at the political and economic side of this."

Odierno also said it is frustrating to have U.S. troops leave Iraq in 2011 at a place that was "headed in the right direction."  

However, he said, due to an agreement made in 2008, Iraqis were scheduled to take full control of the nation in 2011. They were not prepared politically to take on that mission, which allowed ISIS to move in, he said. 

He declined to blame the Obama administration for pulling out U.S. troops too early, after failing to negotiate a status of forces agreement that would have allowed U.S. forces to stay in Iraq but give them immunity against Iraqi law. 

"I remind everybody that us leaving at the end of 2011 was negotiated in 2008 by the Bush administration. And that was always the plan. We had promised that we would respect their sovereignty, and so I think based on that, that was always our plan," he said. 

However, he acknowledged that having U.S. troops in Iraq allowed them to be the honest broker between rival groups. 

"I think, maybe, as we all look back, leaving some soldiers on the ground might have helped a little bit, and maybe prevented where we are now," he said.  

Odierno said he was not in the country when the U.S. was trying to negotiate a longer stay for U.S. troops, after 2011, and could not vouch for whether U.S. officials tried to convince Iraqi forces to approve such an agreement.  

"Frankly, I wasn't there during that time," he said. "I can't tell you if it was a robust effort. I don't want to comment, because I simply wasn't there at the time." 

Now, he said, the chances of reconciliation between rival Shiite and Sunni groups is "becoming more difficult by the day."  

He said partitioning of Iraq "might be the only solution, but I'm not ready to say that yet." 

Odierno also said there were lessons from Iraq for leaving troops longer in Afghanistan. 

"You know, we are still in Europe 70 years later, we're still in Japan 70 years later. Now, we are much smaller and it's a much different relationship. But that is how you help to establish long-standing institutions," he said. 

"Having a [presence] there helps to establish an institution that is capable of being more sustainable and more — lasting for a much longer time," he said.