The Pentagon's top general said Thursday the U.S. military's reach could extend even further into Iraq if the anti-ISIS campaign gains momentum, and he held out the possibility of eventually recommending to President Barack Obama that U.S. troops take on the riskier role of calling in airstrikes.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the White House's announcement Wednesday that up to 450 more U.S. troops would be sent to Iraq to invigorate its flagging campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) is a natural extension of U.S. assistance. He said the support hub the troops will set up will not produce instant results but may serve as a model to be replicated elsewhere in Iraq, possibly requiring even more U.S. troops.
"Sure, we are looking all the time at whether there might be additional sites necessary. It is another one of the options that we are considering." He added: "It is very practical, looking at geographic locations, road networks, airfields, places where we can actually establish these hubs."
The Pentagon said Thursday that the U.S. has spent more than $2.7 billion on the war against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria since bombings began last August, and the average daily cost is now more than $9 million.
Dempsey said he has not recommended putting U.S. troops closer to the battlefield to call in airstrikes a step that critics of the current U.S. approach say is overdue, even though it raises the risk of American casualties. But he pointedly held out the possibility that it may become necessary.
"We continue to plan for and ensure that that option is available should it be necessary to have to ensure Iraqi success," he said, adding, "We may reach that point." Asked why he has not yet recommended it, Dempsey said he believes it could backfire if not done for the right reasons.
Dempsey spoke the day after the Obama administration announced that U.S. troops will establish a new base at al-Taqqadum, situated between Ramadi and Fallujah, both ISIS-controlled cities in Anbar province, to advise Iraqi forces and help mobilize and integrate a larger number of Sunni tribal fighters. Integrating into the fight the Sunni tribes who have either been sidelined by the Shiite-led central government in Baghdad or unwilling to join is seen as crucial to driving the ISIS out of the Sunni-majority areas like Anbar.