Right now, it's damned near impossible to find out what the US is actually planning to do to fight against the Islamic State. There's a lot of moving parts, the spokespeople are using very precise and opaque jargon, and the news coverage has more spin than a whole store full of turntables. Fortunately, the actual situation is a bit less vexing than all the gibberish being spouted about it.
First off, yes, of course there are going to be boots on the ground.
Unfortunately, this particular term sits at the far intersection of excitingly dramatic and unhelpfully vague. Even as people throw the phrase around freely, there's no actual precise definition of what it does and doesn't entail. As a rule of thumb, when you hear "boots on the ground," brace yourself. There's at least a 50/50 chance that someone is just about to egregiously misstate, misinterpret, or misunderstand something.
Nobody sane thinks (at least to my knowledge) that there's any possibility that airstrikes alone will magically bomb the Islamic State into being polite. If you need to dig out bad guys in combat and hold ground, it involves — get this — ground combat forces. Them's the rules.
Indeed, there will be ground forces deployed against the Islamic State: people we like (the Kurds), people we have doubts about (the Iraqi Army), and people we have precious little love for (the Syrian Army).
Heck, President Obama has already said as much in his big September 10 "ISIL Smackdown" speech: "We will conduct a systematic campaign of airstrikes against these terrorists. Working with the Iraqi government, we will expand our efforts… so that we're hitting ISIL targets as Iraqi forces go on offense."
So when some bigwig says something like "airstrikes alone aren't enough to combat the Islamic State" it's not exactly a big revelation. It's more of a throat-clearing or conversational warm-up, required by the rules before making the rest of the point, which may or may not involve sending in a lot of Western forces to fight the Islamic State on the ground. It's just a prelude to a point, not the point itself.
The reality on the ground is already quite straightforward: The Islamic State has been engaged in combat with Iraqi Kurds, the Iraqi Army, the Syrian Kurds, the Syrian Army, and the Free Syrian Army for quite some time. The astute observer will note that sometimes those folks fighting the Islamic State aren't all altogether that hot of a combat force. The Iraqi Army even pulled the largest "defend and dash" prank in recent memory when tens of thousands of its soldiers abandoned Mosul to hundreds of ISIS fighters.
As a result, the US has officially sent advisers to Iraq to advise, share intelligence, and generally help the guys in the middle of the Islamic State ground war to get their game up. So, yes, there are uniformed US soldiers officially in Iraq embedded with Iraqi and Kurdish units. As Obama noted: "We will increase our support to forces fighting these terrorists on the ground… As I have said before, these American forces will not have a combat mission — we will not get dragged into another ground war in Iraq. But they are needed to support Iraqi and Kurdish forces with training, intelligence and equipment."
The most interesting thing that might come out of US advisers in Iraq is the establishment of an Iraqi National Guard (ING). A possible ING could come in handy, acting as a way to get Sunni Tribal militias to turn on the Islamic State and bring them into the fight, while preventing a lot of the problems that got us where we are today. The development and performance of a national guard is something to keep an eye on.
But, returning to the current kerfuffle, sending combat advisers to advise military forces going into combat is not a combat mission. People in the military often wear boots and are, as a matter of course, expected to be able to perform some sort of combat role if called upon, but asserting that this means the US has "boots on the ground" is a pretty tendentious reading of the facts. In fact, General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the nation's top military adviser, had to explain in a hearing last week:
Everyone should be aware when we talk about combat forces, that's all we grow. When we bring a young man or woman in the military, they come in to be a combat soldier or combat marine. We don't bring them in to be anything other than combat capable. But that's different than how we use them and in the case of our contributions in Iraq right now, the airmen… are very much in a combat role. The folks on the ground are in very much a combat advisory role. They are not participating in direct combat.
Just to spell it out, if something has been put on your "to do" list for the day, and it sounds a lot like this:
Close with the enemy by means of fire and maneuver in order to destroy or capture him, or to repel his assault with fire, close combat, and counterattack.
Then, yep, you've been assigned a combat mission.
If this is very different from the items on your agenda, then you probably aren't being assigned a direct combat mission. Now, yes, if a pilot gets downed and the rescue team comes under fire, and the rescue team shoots back, then they're in "combat," but that's a pretty far cry from the Battle of Ramadi.
The closest sliver of truth to the entire cloud of hysteria surrounding Gen. Dempsey's testimony, was that he said that, some day, there might come a point where he might recommend to the president that the US military advisers who are advising the local military might want to tag along for the ride and continue advising much closer to combat
If advisers end up going with guys headed out into combat, mostly what these guys will be doing is providing some advice ("Ahmed, are you really sure that's a good idea?") passing along intelligence ("Well, Ahmed, a little birdie told me there's a fortified Islamic State position on the other side of that ridge,") and calling in airstrikes ("Why yes Ahmed, as a matter of fact, I'd be happy to call for air support.")
Much like rescuing downed pilots, advisers probably ought to return fire if fired upon. This is technically engaging in "combat," but pretending that sending advisers along for the ride is the same thing as re-enacting the First Battle of Fallujah is an enormous stretch.
On top of it all, this advisers-tagging-along scenario is just still hypothetical. All that's happened so far is that Gen. Dempsey (the guy who advises the president on military stuff) said that, should the situation merit it, he would advise the president on military stuff. Meanwhile, some people in Congress have taken to advising the president on this right away and a whole raft of pundits are advising the president on whether he wants it or not.
The craziest, furthest outlier in the realm of still-respectable advice has been those who have taken issue with the Obama's statements that there will be "No ground war in Iraq." After all, never say never.
That sentiment has been floated largely because of two related issues. Firstly, there's the possibility that all the advice and airstrikes in the world won't save the ground forces fighting the Islamic State from a severe case of terminal suck. If the guys already fighting can't get up to scratch, then the US may have to come face to face with the idea that, "if you want it done right, you have to do it yourself."
Secondly, people have argued that it's lousy idea to tell the bad guys about all the (otherwise very possible) things you would prefer to avoid, are afraid of doing, and find generally icky. This might be a valid argument, but it's part of a debate much further down the road.
None of this is to say that there will never, ever be another major US ground war in Iraq. In some hypothetical future, there might be 10,000 US soldiers involved in a direct combat role as part of a major ground operation against the Islamic State. There might be 100,000 US troops. Heck, maybe someday, there might be 1 million Chinese soldiers fighting the Islamic State on the ground in Iraq. A whole ton of things might happen or could happen.
Somewhere out in the land of hypothetical, I suppose, someone, somewhere might be acting coy and trying to imply their way into a major US ground war, but that's not really where the debate is right now.
If you want to figure out whether a talking head is talking about starting up a major ground war in Iraq involving tens of thousands of Western combat forces, you can try using this one weird trick. Wait for them to actually say they're talking about starting up a major ground war in Iraq involving tens of thousands of Western combat forces.
Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan
Photo by John L. Houghton, Jr. via National Archives