WASHINGTON, Sept. 19, 2014 —
Moderate fighters in Syria, Iraqi security forces, the Kurdish Peshmerga, and allies and partners of the United States all have a vested interest in defeating the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant, or ISIL, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno said here today.
The United States has to continue to show resolve as well, he added during remarks to the Defense Writers Group.
"We have to realize this is a long-term threat that will take a long-term commitment," the general pointed out. "If you don't believe [ISIL] doesn't want to attack the West and America, you're kidding yourself. That is their goal."
The primary reason ISIL overran large swaths of territory and Iraqi troops abandoned their posts, he said, is not due to lack of equipment and training of the Iraqi security forces. It was "because people in some parts of Iraq lost faith in their government," he explained.
The most important piece of the fight going forward is for people in all parts of Iraq to regain confidence that the government will represent them and be there for them in all spheres, from economic and political to military and security support, he said.
Still time to turn things around
When he left Iraq in 2010, Odierno said, he was pleased to see signs of progress and believed things would get even better. Now, he said, he's "disappointed" at what's happening there, but believes there is still time to turn things around.
The Iraqi government needs to represent all of the people, he said. "Now, with a new government and new prime minister, there's some hope that will happen," he added.
The new government has promised a willingness to improve relations with all the people of Iraq, Odierno said, but he added that it will take time and actions to regain that trust. "They have to believe it's in their best interest to support the government," he said.
Boots on the ground
"Airstrikes have slowed the advances of ISIL. But airstrikes alone won't defeat ISIL," Odierno cautioned. "You need a complementary ground capability that will go in and do that."
These boots on the ground will be moderates in Syria and Iraq, as well as troops from other Arab nations who would like to assist, he said, adding that the U.S. will train, equip and advise them as needed.
"We all agree with the current strategy we're executing," he said, referring to the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the president. "We've got to give this time to work. It's important they're the ones who will defeat ISIL."
Odierno added that as is the case in any operation, assessments will continue to be made as events unfold, and that with input from his commanders, he will continue to provide the chairman and the president with candid advice.
All options are open, he said. "I never rule anything out," he added.
Airstrikes will become more difficult
While U.S. airstrikes have been effective at slowing the spread of ISIL, Odierno cautioned that targets will become more difficult in the future as the extremists blend in with the civilian population and possibly use them as human shields.
The U.S. military is using a cautious approach to "vetting" the forces who will engage with ISIL with U.S. training and arms, he said. "We must be sure they are who they are and won't be part of some extremist group," he explained.
Another caution he pointed to, is a danger inherent in the use of air power to target the extremists. "The worst thing that can happen to us is killing innocent Iraqis, innocent civilians, so we have to be careful and precise in targeting," the general said. That gets back to why Iraqi ground forces are needed on the ground to help with that targeting effort, he added.