United States Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and President Barack Obama cover their hearts during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner during Gates' Armed Forces Farewell Tribute at the Pentagon June 30, 2011 in Arlington, Virginia.
United States Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and President Barack Obama cover their hearts during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner during Gates' Armed Forces Farewell Tribute at the Pentagon June 30, 2011 in Arlington, Virginia. - 

President Barack Obama announced Friday that he will send up to 1,500 troops to advise and train forces in Iraq.

Marketplace's David Gura asked former Defense Secretary Robert Gates about the possibility of further deployments. Plus, how another across-the-board spending cut would, in his view, blunt military effectiveness. Listen to the full interview (or read the transcript below):

 

 
David Gura: President Obama said today he’s going to deploy up to 1,500 more personnel to Iraq to fight against ISIS. Do you think that move was inevitable? We see these numbers climbing up. Will they keep climbing?

Robert Gates: I understand the President’s desire not to re-fight the Iraq War. I don’t think there are very many Americans who want to do that either. The challenge that I think he faces is to draw a distinction between having a substantial advisory presence there and sending in battalions and brigades who are going to be the primary combat forces. So I think as long as the mission and role of these troops is constrained, I think you can keep the numbers to very small numbers.

I personally believe that you cannot achieve the President’s objective of destroying ISIS without having embedded trainers and advisers with the Iraqis and with peshmerga and some of the Sunni tribal leaders and so on. I think you need forward air controllers, spotters, and we need some special forces. But I think -- I think we’re talking in terms of hundreds of troops, not thousands or tens of thousands. So, I think to be able to achieve his objective we are going to have to be more engaged on the ground, below the brigade level.

But I think that you can constrain this so that it isn’t just an inexorable march back to having significant numbers of combat troops. The key will be, that if we have these embedded advisers, and even that is not working, to be able to say, okay, now what’s the alternative? And the alternative is not going back into Iraq with a large ground force of American troops.

So there’s more here than just a semantic distinction when we’re talking about trainers and advisers. They really are doing something different.

Oh yeah, there’s a difference between being a trainer and adviser at the brigade level, or at the division level – which puts you way back from the front, if you will, from the fighting – and having somebody who’s embedded with an Iraqi company or an Iraqi battalion that is out there on the front lines. There is risk associated with that. There’s no two ways about it. And that’s why you have to limit the forces that are doing that.

But it’s hard for me to see how they retake ground from ISIS – for example, to retake the city of Mosul – without some pretty close-in, Western, including American, assistance, advice and training.

While there’s this ramp up, how hard is it to execute these missions when there’s the threat of these automatic spending cuts due to take effect in 2016?

I’ve said publicly, there may be a more stupid way to cut the federal budget than through sequestration, but I can’t imagine what it might be. This is absolute madness because it requires us to cut the most important things that we are doing at the same level, or at the same percentage you’re cutting the stupidest things we do.

At the same time as we’re cutting perhaps some bureaucracy and overhead, we’re cutting the money that has been set aside to take care of wounded warriors and their families, family counseling programs, as well as modernization programs, maintenance and operations, so I think that this Congress and the President have a “must have,” as a very high priority, getting rid of sequestration.

If they want to cut the budget, then do it through the regular budget process, and set aside this crazy plan that even they didn’t want to enact.

Follow David Gura at @davidgura