by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
On Oct. 22, U.S. Army Master Sgt. Joshua Wheeler — a member of the secretive Delta Force — died during a hostage-rescue mission at an Islamic State prison in Hawijah, Iraq.
“We won’t hold back from … conducting such missions directly, whether by strikes from the air or direct action on the ground,” Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Oct. 27.
Despite Carter clearly speaking about commando raids, many took his remarks as signaling a larger push by American soldiers in Iraq. Then on Oct. 30, reports began to circulate about the Pentagon sending 50 elite troops into Syria to work with local forces.
When the first U.S. troops began returning to region in June 2014, Pres. Barack Obama insisted the deployments did not constitute a “boots on the ground” combat mission. Yet dealing with legal issues and trying to manage public perception, the Obama administration is having a hard time reconciling how it describes the war with the undisputed facts.
“’Boots on the ground’ is rapidly becoming one of the most abused and misused terms out there,” New America Foundation strategist Peter Singer wrote in an email to War Is Boring in September. “Once meaningful, it is being rendered meaningless, not just by wording stretches that would do a yoga master proud but how it is used in speeches simply doesn’t reflect its meaning in policy.”
After more than a year of bombing, commandos striking at targets on the ground and U.S. troops training Iraqi soldiers and police, the Pentagon has had to admit things have changed … sort of.
“I can tell you we’re in combat,” Army Col. Steve Warren, the spokesman for the American command in Baghdad, told reporters via satellite on Oct. 28. “I thought I made that pretty clear.”
But Washington’s definition of what’s actually happening has been anything but clear. Joint Publication 1–02, the Pentagon’s central glossary, has no entry for “combat” or “boots on the ground.”
“The president is not contemplating the deployment of combat boots on the ground into Iraq or Syria to deal with this situation,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said at a routine briefing on Sept. 8, 2014. At that point, the Pentagon already had hundreds of troops in Iraq.
Officially, the American force — backed up by drones and AH-64 Apache gunships — was in Iraq performing non-combat tasks. Some troops trained Iraqi soldiers. As part of mission the Pentagon calls “force protection,” the rest were looking after those advisers or defending the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
Five months later, the White House position had changed, but only in regards to commando strikes and similar missions. “In some cases, reacting promptly to contingencies may require ordering military action that does involve combat boots on the ground,” Earnest told the press corps on Jan. 11.
The Pentagon now has nearly 3,400 troops in Iraq, a Pentagon spokesperson told War Is Boring in an email. More than 2,500 training Iraqi troops are still not considered be in a combat role. With their Apache gunships and other weaponry, the remaining troops are protecting that force or American facilities.
So it’s hardly shocking that many people were surprised to hear Carter and Warren insist there was no debate about what was going on in Iraq. “That’s why we all carry guns,” Warren said, speaking from the American command center in Baghdad. “So, of course it’s combat.”
While terms like “combat” and “boots on the ground” may not have clear legal definitions, Washington’s semantic dance is — at least in part — a product of an ongoing fight between congressional and executive authority.
At the end of the Vietnam War, American lawmakers passed the War Powers Resolution. The legislators hoped that the law would prevent any president from embroiling the country in a war without consulting them first.
Under the provisions of the resolution, Congress can order the executive branch to halt military operations — that the president authorized without Congress’ express approval — after 60 days. On top of that, many lawmakers and legal scholars argue that the War Powers law is supposed to prevent the deployment of American troops in the first place, unless the United States is under direct threat.
“The War Powers Resolution correctly recognized that congressional silence, inaction or even implicit authorization was insufficient to authorize the president to engage in warfare,” Jules Lobel, a professor of law at the University of Pittsburgh, told members of the House of Representatives in April 2008. “Presidents simply ignored it, Congress had an insufficient interest in enforcing it and the courts responded by saying that if Congress did nothing, why should we?”
With American troops in Iraq for over a year without a specific legal justification, legislators have debated whether to authorize the mission — with a specific caveat banning open combat — or order Obama to stop the campaign. The Obama administration insists that major ground operations are not a possibility, and would not require congressional approval anyway.
Congress did approve a worldwide campaign against Al Qaeda, and an authorization to use military force in Iraq is still on the books. Since Islamic State is an outgrowth of Al Qaeda in Iraq, officials argue the old rules still apply.
On top of that, the White House could point to the precedent set by the brief air war over Libya in 2011 and a subsequent, limited ground operation — both of which occurred without formal congressional support.
Since Congress has been unwilling or unable to challenge the White House’s position so far, the administration’s linguistic waffling about the nature of “combat” has much more to do with public promises, perception at home and abroad and even possibly Obama’s legacy.
“This isn’t a legal dispute,” Robert Chesney, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin, told War Is Boring in an email.
“The administration seems to have made a policy judgment that having U.S. ground units conducting independent, offensive operations might be counterproductive in the long term,” Chesney added. “Presumably because this might feed into enemy narratives and create a stronger magnet for foreign fighters.”
Islamic State draws strength from foreign fighters recruited elsewhere in the Middle East, Europe, Central Asia and Africa. During the American occupation of Iraq between 2003 and 2011, the organization rallied around fighting the “crusader occupiers.”
Perhaps more importantly, Obama came to office on 2008 in part by assuring voters he would end the “war of choice” in Iraq. In addition, the administration had plans to withdraw the bulk of American troops from Afghanistan and close down the controversial military prison camp at the U.S. Marine Corps’ base at Guantanamo Bay.
With a little over a year left in his presidency, Obama has ordered troops back into Iraq, halted the drawdown in Afghanistan and has not been able to close the detention facility better known as “Gitmo.”
“The situation obviously complicates the administration’s long-standing narrative about ending the U.S. ground combat role in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Chesney noted.
If possible, Obama and his staff would want to avoid tying their legacies to the same two never-ending conflicts that defined George W. Bush’s presidency. This means the administration stresses that its wars are not analogous to the earlier invasion and occupation of Iraq.
Besides, the executive branch probably wants to avoid handing any more sweeping war-making powers to whoever wins the 2016 election. With new powers in place, Obama could take the blame for any future military actions — for instance, if the next president threatens war with Iran.
The administration also knows that making the distinction sends a message to America’s allies, especially the Iraqi government. Translation — you can’t or at least shouldn’t rely on the Pentagon for everything.
“That’s a strategic point, it’s not a linguistic point,” Carter told reporters on Oct. 28. “We know from experience, that that’s the only way to make defeat of ISIL stick, is to have the involvement of local forces, who can take and hold territory.”
Of course, these legal and political debates don’t change the fact that Americans are fighting, killing and dying overseas. As the Pentagon has been saying stridently since Wheeler’s death, combat is combat, no matter what else you call it. “This is combat,” Carter said at an Oct. 22 briefing. “Things are complicated.”
With all of these legal and political complexities and semantic shifting, that’s putting it mildly.