Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford came of age on the battlefields of America’s post-9/11 wars. As a colonel, he led the 5th Marine Regiment during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, earning his nickname of “Fighting Joe” Dunford. Later, he commanded all U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan as commander of the International Security Assistance Force from February 2013 to August 2014. Breaking Defense contributor James Kitfield interviewed Dunford one-on-one on a recent trip to Iraq and Turkey. This includes excerpts from a series of interviews Dunford gave to Kitfield and a small group of reporters that accompanied him.
Q: When you were asked during your confirmation hearings last fall what is the greatest threat the country faced from a dizzying array of challenges, you pointed to Russia. Given how much Russia has been in the news since then – bombing U.S.-supported rebels in Syria, conducting dangerous fly-bys of US warships, reportedly hacking the emails of the Democratic National Committee — do you still stand by that assessment?
Dunford: When I was asked about the top threats we faced, I listed multiple challenges. But I said the one that could pose an existential threat to the United States was Russia. That was based on their capabilities, to include cyber warfare, information operations, and nuclear weapons capabilities. My assessment was also based on their behavior in places like Crimea, Ukraine, and Georgia. So Russia still has all of those capabilities, and their behavior has remained pretty consistent since I testified. So I still believe Russia remains our greatest potential threat.
Q: The Senate recently rejected at attempt by John McCain, R-Az., chairman of the Armed Services Committee, to add $18 billion to the defense authorization bill. There is also serious doubt whether the Senate and House can reconcile their competing defense bills by the end of the fiscal year on September 30. Meanwhile, the Obama Administration is once again threatening to veto those bills because of various objections. Are you concerned that another political impasse on defense spending will leave the US military trying to live within inadequate budget limits?
Dunford: That is absolutely a major concern. As I’ve told a lot of people, I think our greatest challenge over the next couple of years is to continue to meet our requirements for current operations, and to also make the proper investments to ensure our military forces are ready and capable of meeting the challenges of tomorrow. It is very difficult to do that living year to year with the specter of sequestration hanging over us. Over time it amounts to death by a thousand cuts. We’ve already seen a gradual erosion of our capability over the last two to three years.
Q: In threatening to veto the Senate’s National Defense Authorization, the White House specifically objected to Senator McCain’s proposal to slash the size of the general officer corps by 25 percent. Is it your belief that there are too many generals, and that the uniformed ranks are top heavy?
Dunford: Well, we’re still working with both the Senate Armed Services and House Armed Services Committees to come up with a proposal that meets their requirements for reform, right-sizes the force to include our general officer population, and at the same time allows us to maintain military effectiveness. So we’re going to go back and look at this issue, and work with Senator McCain and others to make sure we get it right.
Q: But do you believe the US military has too many generals?
Dunford: No, right now it is not my sense that we have too many general officers.
Q: In the midst of a presidential election campaign that has seen retired generals speak at both the Republican and Democratic conventions, you recently published an article warning U.S. troops against becoming “politicized.” Why are you so concerned?
Dunford: Because whoever the president of the United States is on January 20th, 2017, he or she needs to have absolute trust and confidence on day one that the military leadership is completely loyal, and completely prepared to do whatever must be done. It’s also important that the American people not look at the US military as an institution and see just another special interest group or partisan organization. They need to look at us as an apolitical organization that swears to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United State. We don’t defend any individual, political party, or branch of government, but rather the Constitution. That nonpartisan ethos has been written into my own DNA from the day I took the oath as a young lieutenant. I think it’s critical, which is why I’ll keep banging this drum.
Q: You’ve just returned from Iraq, where you met with Iraqi military and political leaders to assess the campaign to destroy the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), or Daesh in Arabic. After more than two years of occupation by Daesh, are the Iraqis finally ready to recapture Mosul, the second largest city in the country?
Dunford: When people have asked me over the past couple of months when the battle of Mosul will start, I tell them it’s already started. If you look at the map, you’ll see that there are simultaneous operations ongoing to isolate Daesh in both Mosul and Raqqa [Syria]. Those operations are limiting the enemy’s freedom of movement back and forth, and gradually tightening the noose on them. Our strikes to eliminate leadership, disrupt their lines of communications and go after their resources are also eroding the will of the enemy. [Last month] Daesh left Fallujah in disorder, and it’s clear to me their willingness to hold ground has declined over time. In the wake of [the recent recapture of] Fallujah, it’s also clear that in terms of morale and will, Daesh is a different force than six or eight months ago.
Q: Human rights groups reported significant numbers of atrocities against Sunni civilians after Fallujah fell, most of them committed by Shiite militias called Popular Mobilization Forces. Are efforts being made to avoid a repeat in Mosul?
Dunford: I think it’s fair to say that’s one of the issues the Iraqis are working through that must be addressed. Given the allegations made in the wake of Fallujah, we know what is not acceptable to the local populations in the north. So I’m comfortable everyone understands that the issue [of the role of militias] has to be resolved, and that there will be consequences if it is not resolved properly. The Iraqis are having that conversation, but there are still tough issues outstanding.
Q: Are you confident they will avoid the mistakes of Fallujah?
Dunford: In terms of the Iraqi political and military leadership, I think there is greater maturity and appreciation for the need to deliver humanitarian assistance to internally displaced people as part of the military campaign. They understand that it is critical to provide basic services to the population in the immediate aftermath of military operations. I can tell you from my conversation with [President of Iraqi Kurdistan Masoud] Barzani that he recognizes our success in Mosul will be determined in large part by the perception of the people inside Mosul. As long as they feel they are being liberated by capable forces who are going to respect them, the chances we will get cooperation from the locals is much greater. So the Iraqis are working through the details of the Mosul campaign and the political issues that have to be decided to prepare for what we are describing as “the day after Mosul.”
Q: In the aftermath of Mosul will the US military need to maintain a presence in Iraq?
Dunford: I’ve had some initial discussions with Iraqi political and military leaders about the kinds of support they will need in the future. Six months ago we couldn’t have that conversation because the Iraqis were fighting for their survival. Now we’ve turned a corner, and probably the biggest takeaway from my visit was the sense of confidence and optimism the Iraqis have that didn’t exist last fall. In the minds of the Iraqis, it’s not a question any more of if they are going to beat Daesh, but rather when. So now we’re at a natural place to have a conversation about what happens after Mosul.
Q: What is the gist of those early conversations?
Dunford: I think we and the Iraqis are in agreement that Iraqi Security Forces will need external support in the near term to become self-sustaining, and that the United States is best postured to offer that support. The Iraqis are very appreciative of our partnership. And frankly, my recommendation moving forward is that there should be conditions on US support. We shouldn’t have our young men and women putting themselves in harm’s way unless there is a willing partner in Iraq with a common perspective on where we need to go. Whether or not the Iraqi and U.S. governments can agree on a framework for the US military to provide that support remains to be seen.
Q: How much longer do you think a US military presence will be necessary before Iraqi Security Forces are self-sustaining?
Dunford: I’d be loath to speculate how long it will take because we still need to apply a fair amount of analytic rigor to current ISF operations, and to reach a common understanding with our Iraqi partners of what level of support is needed. But I don’t think we’re talking about 6 months, or 12 months, or 18 months, or even 24 months. We’re talking about something longer than that. Other than that it wouldn’t be right for me to speculate on a timeline without Iraqis sitting at the table. [On the trip] I told Iraqi leaders that our most solemn responsibility is to make the sacrifices of those who have fallen or been grievously wounded in this conflict matter. I feel the same way about Afghanistan. There have been sacrifices made. We should make them matter.