The current U.S. efforts against the Islamic State group have continuously been compared to U.S. efforts in Vietnam during the 1960s through a single term: mission creep. At every step of the way, the Obama administration has signaled that it wishes to help in efforts to stem IS’s grip on the region – as well as stunt its growth globally – without reneging on foundational views that won Obama the presidency: don’t get engaged in new conflicts.
As such, there has been an incremental escalation of U.S. efforts. In August 2014, U.S. military engagement was centered on protecting and rescuing a besieged Iraqi minority religious group called the Yazidis who were marooned on a mountain by IS. The U.S. then expanded efforts to protect the Mosul dam from being breached couched under the guise of protecting U.S. interests and personnel in Baghdad; if the dam was damaged, rushing waters could endanger those downriver. Most recently, U.S. ground troops have been introduced into the conflict with up to 50 special forces being sent to Syria to advise anti-IS forces on the ground and up to 200 special operators being sent to Iraq as an “expeditionary targeting force” to conduct raids and collect intelligence on IS.
Now there are reports that the U.S. is considering how many troops to commit to an effort by the Iraq forces to retake IS’s Iraqi capital and stronghold of Mosul – the nation’s second largest city totaling nearly 1.5 million people. Details on the plan are scarce as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford only talked about making recommendations. Nevertheless, the notion that the U.S. could be committing more troops – to which Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has alluded in the past – is significant.
While Iraqi and U.S. forces have announced plans for retaking Mosul, they are only in the planning stages. Military officials and those in the academic world have stated that efforts to retake Mosul could take years. IS has maintained a presence in Mosul for years, even prior to its current incarnation. Following the troop surge of 2007 that helped to largely quell the insurgency and restore some semblance of peace in Iraq, IS’s predecessor group retreated and regrouped in Mosul where it has since remained. Retaking the city will be a mammoth undertaking and Iraqi and Kurdish forces will need all the help they can get.
However, as the U.S. appears eager to help its allies, it is simultaneously trying to keep Russia from filling a potential vacuum in the way of assistance to U.S. allies in the event the U.S. remains on the sidelines.
Most importantly to these new discussions, Congress has still not authorized force against IS which renders increased troop participation beyond “train, advise, and assist” legally specious.
The U.S. is largely relying on the war authorization from 2001 against the Taliban and al-Qaeda for the legal cover for its IS-efforts, which many in the academic world have decried. For many, the introduction of air power against IS under this legal framework was questionable, but permissible. The introduction of special operations forces on the ground participating in raids and taking casualties, however, raises the stakes.
In Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan – where the U.S. combat mission ended over a year ago – the U.S. has special operations forces accompanying indigenous forces, keeping these operators in harm’s way. The response from the Defense Department and the White House when asked about the lack of statutory legal authority for the introduction of ground troops is that these troops are not taking part in a combat role, but merely providing a “train, advise, and assist” role to indigenous forces. While some DOD officials have said U.S. troops are in combat, they do not have a combat role.
“I would compare the train, advise and assist role to perhaps a coach and a football team. And so the analogy would be that the coach is there for every practice, he's there for every game, but he's not on the field. He's not throwing the football, he's not making tackles, but he's there and he's coaching, and that's what our forces do in the train, advise and assist role, they coach. And that's what was going on here,” Brig Gen Wilson Shoffner, deputy chief of staff for communications for the Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan told reporters recently. “So when our forces are conducting train, advise and assist, they'll assist with planning, they'll assist in integrating intelligence support, they'll assist in integrating air support. They can assist with helping with transportation, but increasingly, the Afghans have been providing the transportation on their own.”
“I think it’s accurate to say that the President has been steadfast in his belief that this is not going to be an effort that involves putting our men and women in a combat role over there,” a White House spokesperson said in October after the death of an American commando while participating in a Kurdish raid on an IS compound to free hostages. “[The president’s] been very clear in delineating what the nature of operations that our men and women would be serving under. That includes the train, advise, and assist operation. That includes Special Forces operations, humanitarian rescue operations, and also counterterrorism missions.”
While many in the press corps and academic world have grown tired of the semantic gymnastics the administration has played regarding the role of U.S. soldiers recently, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has introduced a proposal to the Senate floor that will authorize force against IS. However, the measure, authored by one of the more hawkish members of Congress, Lindsey Graham (R-SC), provides exceptionally broad authority for the president placing little, if any, limits on the anti-IS efforts. The measure will likely be vetoed by the White House as it is significantly broader in scope than the proposal the White House submitted to Congress last year.
While the U.S. has touted it’s 60-plus nation coalition against IS, participation in daily air raids has only been carried out by a select few. Similarly, the mentality of top U.S. officials, as well as many scholars, is that a U.S. ground force alone cannot defeat the idea of IS – IS must be defeated by local Sunni Muslim troops committed by regional nations and tribes. As the U.S. works to gain support from regional militaries to commit ground forces, this prospect faces increasing difficulty given the myriad competing priorities of regional nations.
“ISIS may be a common enemy, but few of its enemies in the region think it is the number one priority,” wrote Jean-Marie Guéhenno, president and CEO of the International Crisis Group, regarding the myth of relying on “allies” to wage a ground war against IS, using a different acronym for the group. “The Saudis care more about weakening Iran. Turkey’s main priorities in Syria are ousting Assad and containing Kurdish separatism. The Syrian Kurds care about Kurdistan. Iran, along with the Assad regime, and, for the time being, Russia cares more about maintaining Assad in power than defeating ISIS. Not only have regional politics and escalating competition between states been a major boon for ISIS, they also complicate efforts to defeat it.”
Herein lies the conundrum for the U.S.: pressure continues to build at home to “do something” – for which the president is skeptical about committing U.S. soldiers – meanwhile, allies in the region are loathe to provide significant assets. The notion of mission creep is becoming stronger and stronger. In addition to more intense operations in Iraq and Syria, President Obama allowed the U.S. to more easily target members of IS in its Afghanistan province. With more troop deployments to the region likely, the administration will likely soon change its tune on the semantics of “combat.”