Personally, I’m pretty tired of “boots on the ground” as a supposedly meaningful description of the escalation that many hawks want to see in the U.S. military role in the undeclared war against the non-nation that nonetheless called itself a “state” that most Americans call ISIS or ISIL. You know whom I mean.
There have been, at all times since the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, armed American soldiers, wearing boots and standing on the ground, in Iraq. The question of how many and what they are doing has varied greatly. President Obama inherited a mess there from his predecessor and has tried to resist getting drawn too deeply into ground combat while also wanting to play a significant role in the defeat of ISIS.
According to this smart piece by Fred Kaplan of Slate, headlined “Let’s Be Honest: We are going to war in Iraq against ISIS,” the latest small escalation of the U.S. role there should (but probably won’t) obliterate the last level of deniability that what we have is U.S. troops in boots, on the ground, with guns, within shooting distance of ISIL. The two following paragraphs, from Kaplan’s piece, clarify what we ought to call that:
Secretary of Defense Ash Carter announced this week that, for the coming battle to liberate Mosul, another 217 troops will be sent to Iraq (bringing the total to 4,087, not counting the few-hundred special operations forces); that they’ll move to the front lines with Iraqi soldiers on the battalion level (before, American troops tended to stay on bases); that they and the Iraqis will be supported in the air not only by drones and fighter jets but also by Apache helicopters — and on the ground by the new High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, which can fire waves of rockets or missiles from long range with great accuracy. (One military source on the ground says that these advanced artillery rockets have been pounding ISIS targets for a couple of weeks now.)
In short, we are going to war in Iraq against ISIS. It’s not going to be like George W. Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq: It will involve about 5,000 U.S. troops, not 150,000; and local forces — Iraqi soldiers, Kurdish peshmerga, and various militias — will be in the lead. But the United States will be directly involved in the fighting and quite possibly the dying. And although Carter and other senior officials say the U.S.’s mission isn’t changing it’s clear that, by any reasonable definition of “mission” and “changing,” it is. What’s going on with U.S. forces in Iraq, in fact, is a living, looming case study in “mission creep.”