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U.S. in Iraq: ‘a living, looming case study in mission creep’

REUTERS/Faisal Al Nasser
Defense Secretary Ash Carter attending a joint news conference with Gulf Cooperation Council Secretary General Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Wednesday.

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.”

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Comments (28)

  1. Submitted by Jim Million on 04/25/2016 - 09:05 am.


    This current stuff is coming directly from the White House in response to reality.

    It’s time to give in to “realities on the ground,” including diligent (perhaps failing) attempts to get the local poobahs to assume responsibility and resolution.

    Perhaps everyone may finally understand that it’s not about the oil anymore (as we have demonstrated), but about what it’s always been about since the Middle Ages: sandals and bare feet, mostly, and buffed-up armor.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 04/25/2016 - 09:38 am.

      The Reality

      I would like to see acknowledged and responded to by politicians, DC think tanks, and the so-called foreign policy experts is that our military adventures from Afghanistan to the Middle East over the last 30 years have been an abject failure by nearly any measure that can be conceived.

      The shocking waste in human life and treasure is only exceeded by the fact that it continues and that our “leaders” refuse to re-consider their prior failures while telling us more of the same will somehow lead to different results. Hillary Clinton is exhibit A, as we will all soon learn.

  2. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 04/25/2016 - 09:52 am.


    We’re going to conquer the Middle East with 5000 troops when we couldn’t conquer part of it with 150,000? We’re going to have to set our expectations at a politically unacceptable low level, or ratchet our involvement up to a politically unacceptable high level.
    And remember that the ‘sandals and bare feet have been carrying rifles for a hundred years or so.

  3. Submitted by Dan Berg on 04/25/2016 - 12:23 pm.

    Three options

    One: Small force which is politically acceptable in the United States, militarily ineffectual, still provides ISIS enough justification for their recruiting and still gives no path to any lasting stability.

    Two: A military force large enough to be effective on the ground but unacceptable politically in the U.S. and also provides no path to meaningful stability once the guns stop.

    Three: Don’t send the military to get involved in internal conflicts and don’t send military or economic aid to governments who give any indication they would like to be a threat to the United States or its allies.

    The U.S. helps prop up terrible regimes not just directly though our military (Saudi Arabia) but by giving those that appose our “allies” an excuse to ignore their own internal issues. The bigger military presence we have overseas the more damage we do.

  4. Submitted by John Appelen on 04/25/2016 - 07:40 pm.

    Okay, I’ll bite, What do you non-interventionists want to do?

    Should we have let:
    – Saddam invade our ally Kuwait? (and maybe Saudi Arabia)
    – Maintained the No Fly Zones for 60 years? (kind of the like in Korea)
    – Let the Taliban continue to allow terrorist training camps?
    – Let ISIL continue to take land, secure funding, grow, etc?

    It would be interesting to see what the Middle East would have looked like if the Ottoman Empire had not entered WWI on the wrong side. Unfortunately they did and the rest is history.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 04/26/2016 - 09:26 am.

      A complete answer would take a book, not a blog post

      As a short answer to the first question:
      George H.W.Bush (the one with foreign policy chops) had it right:
      kick Saddam out of Kuwait and emasculate him, but don’t totally destroy Iraq as a nation (leaving a vacuum waiting to be filled). I have not seen a creditable speculation that Saddam had ambitions beyond Kuwait (which was historically part of Iraq; the Basra Province) sectioned off by British oil interests.

      • Submitted by John Appelen on 04/26/2016 - 10:25 pm.

        So apparently the answer is that you would have let Saddam do as he wished in the region.

        Now is that the same answer you have for ISIL? Just pull all American military from the region and let them do as they wish?

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 04/26/2016 - 09:31 am.


      1. Interesting way of characterizing the choice. I would note that many international law experts believed that Iraq had legitimate grievances against Kuwait. Some observers also noted the historical significance of sending US soldiers into battle to preserve and defend hereditary monarchies, for the first time in our history.

      2. Korea has been at peace for 60 years. Granted, it is a fragile, uneasy peace, but peace nonetheless.

      3. Just for the record: That was in Afghanistan, not Iraq.

      4. You’re confusing the issue. Daesh was not a factor in 2003; in fact, the American invasion was likely the catalyst for its development.

      5. The Ottoman Empire had been crumbling for a long time. World War I was just the final blow.

      • Submitted by John Appelen on 04/26/2016 - 10:22 pm.


        1. Grievance does not justify invasion, and they were a key US strategic ally in the region.
        2. The US maintains a force of almost 30,000 soldiers in Korea to maintain that peace.
        3. The US intervened against terrorism.
        5. Ottoman empire collapsed, should allies have just everyone fight it out?

        4. The primary question. What do the non-interventionists like yourselves want to do? Just pull all American military from the region and let ISIL start growing again?

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 04/27/2016 - 09:08 am.

          Well . . .

          1. Our key strategic allies are sponsors of a host of human rights violations, and are likely the homes of financiers of terrorism Iraq, of course, was also once considered a “key ally” in the region, at least during the Reagan presidency and the early years of the Bush presidency (reversing a tilt away from Saddam by the Carter administration).

          2. Yes, but they are not actively engaged in combat operations.

          3. In Afghanistan, the intervention was against terrorism. The nation-building was/is an exercise in folly. Alexander the Great could have told us that.

          5. Who’s to say there would have been fighting?

          4. There is a long continuum between “boots on the ground” and “do nothing.” It should be apparent by now that a purely military effort is not going to defeat Daesh.

          • Submitted by John Appelen on 04/27/2016 - 05:58 pm.


            1. I don’t think there are any peace loving Democracies in that region to partner with, so we ally with the best folks we can find.

            2. If we had left 30,000 soldiers sitting in Iraq for 60+ years, maybe they would not be fighting?

            3. Sorry, leaving the Afghanistan women and girls under Taliban control without even trying to help would have been too selfish and cold for me.

            5. I think the last 5,000 years and the last 25 years indicate there would have been fighting in that region.

            4. I am interested to hear what you recommend on this continuum? Where do you think we would be if Obama had chosen that path?

            • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 04/28/2016 - 12:53 pm.

              Counting Down

              Once upon a time, we partnered with Saddam, a decision reached by the Reagan administration. He was the best we could find at the time.

              “I think the last 5,000 years and the last 25 years indicate there would have been fighting in that region.” And that sums it up in a nutshell. If we had left 30,000 soldiers in Iraq (under what authority? The government of Iraq wasn’t any too keen on letting the US keep such a presence there), there would still be fighting or, at least, tension. Sooner or later, the US would come to the realization that staying there was not worth the struggle.

              “Sorry, leaving the Afghanistan women and girls under Taliban control without even trying to help would have been too selfish and cold for me.” So, eternal occupation or colonization? It sounds an awful lot like “nation building.” Are we willing to spend the time and money to educate the people and erase centuries of a culture that calls for the oppression of women? It would cost American tax dollars–I don’t see the private sector jumping in to fill this particular void (Billionaires flying in for a photo op don’t accomplish much).

              Incidentally, remember that the Saudis also oppress women, they have just gotten more sophisticated about the way that they do it.

              “I am interested to hear what you recommend on this continuum?” In Afghanistan, Syria, or Iraq? I would not have invaded Iraq in the first place, but that’s water under the bridge now. Afghanistan may be hopeless–progress is going to be stymied in a country with such relatively small economic potential. Syria is also a hard case. Assad should go, but he is being backed by Russia, so there is little US pressure that would work. I think containing Daesh is the top priority now, and the US military has a limited role it can or should play there (intelligence, possibly air support).

              • Submitted by John Appelen on 04/30/2016 - 10:03 am.


                So in summary, it sounds like your answer is to pull all American ground forces out of the Middle East, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, etc. And then start providing only intelligence and some air support in Syria / Iraq. And maybe try for political solutions.

                How do you think that will work out for them, Europe and US? Please remember that sounds a lot like Obama’s original plan, before he learned that it allowed ISIS to thrive and expand.

                Now folks can try to blame the situation on past policies and events, though it is somewhat pointless since they are in the past. The big question is what do we do going forward.

                • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 05/02/2016 - 09:12 am.


                  “Now folks can try to blame the situation on past policies and events, though it is somewhat pointless since they are in the past.” Pointless? One of the biggest mistakes the leadership of any nation makes is to ignore the past, because that was then, this is now. Sure, it may be uncomfortable politically, but our mistakes are our best teachers.

                  “The big question is what do we do going forward.” Which is informed, if not answered by, what has gone before.

                  • Submitted by John Appelen on 05/02/2016 - 04:22 pm.


                    Please clarify where I told you to ignore the past? The Present by Spencer Johnson is one of my favorite books. Quite simply it teaches:
                    – Learn from the Past
                    – Plan for the Future
                    – Focus on and Live in today

                    So yes there are thousands of years of Middle East History one can study and learn from. And I think most of us would appreciate a stable Middle East in the future that is controlled by citizens who do not threaten and/or kill peaceful citizens.

                    Now with that settled, do you have answers for the questions I posed above?

                    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 05/02/2016 - 05:10 pm.


                      If something is “pointless,” shouldn’t we ignore it?

                      “So in summary, it sounds like your answer is to pull all American ground forces out of the Middle East, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, etc. And then start providing only intelligence and some air support in Syria / Iraq. And maybe try for political solutions.” The Middle East is a broad geographic term, but it is a long way–geographically, politically, culturally–from Afghanistan, but in any event, I doubt there is a military solution in either case. Any US troops in Pakistan are advisers not engaged in active combat. I was not aware we had ground forces in Yemen.

                      Interestingly, what does unite “the Middle East, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, etc” is a distrust for US power that often veers into outright hatred.

                      “And then start providing only intelligence and some air support in Syria / Iraq. And maybe try for political solutions.” Yes. I don’t understand why that makes less sense than another extension of military might that will be costly in blood and treasure. There are practical limits to any extension.

                    • Submitted by John Appelen on 05/03/2016 - 12:57 pm.

                      Ignore was your word. I said… “Now folks can try to blame the situation on past policies and events, though it is somewhat pointless since they are in the past.” ie “crying over spilt milk” The outstanding question given your plan of “no US boots on the ground” in the chaotic countries…

                      “How do you think that will work out for them, Europe and US? ”

  5. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 04/25/2016 - 08:31 pm.

    There are several complicating issues…

    There is a good probability that Turkey’s intelligence service is supporting ISIS for two reasons–to get at Assad, and to deplete Kurdish forces militarily. (think of Pakistan intelligence and the Taliban). Oil is being sold by ISIS through Turkey and materiel goes the other way.

    And Assad knows that if there is a “choice” between Assad and ISIS, Assad will be the party to support by virtue of being least crazy. So as long as there is ISIS, the world’s opposition to Assad will always come second.

    So two long-term foes, Assad and the Turkey find a common “frenemy” in ISIS

    It’s a very muddled field, and ISIS is at the center.

  6. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 04/25/2016 - 09:22 pm.

    Iraq war history

    Let’s try to look at Iraq war objectively.

    Almost everyone agreed even then that Saddam was a ruthless dictator who killed many of his own people, used chemical weapons, and started several wars (making it hard to understand why so many people protested the Iraq war and sanctions while being totally indifferent to bombing Yugoslavia, without the UN authorization just several years before that). Since the 1991 Gulf War, Iraq violated numerous UNSC resolutions, calling for it to get rid of its WMD, that were never fully implemented, as Saddam kept inspectors out after 1998. In addition, prior to the Iraq War, multiple intelligence services, including France’s and Russia’s, concluded that Saddam either had, or was looking for, the WMD which was logically supported by Saddam’s refusal to allow inspections (so no, Bush did not lie).

    So it was understandable that in October 2002 Congress passed, overwhelmingly and on a bi-partisan basis, a resolution authorizing President Bush to use military force against Iraq, since the evidence of non-cooperation and the threat was obvious (in fact, the resolution listed many reasons in addition to the possible WMD). Most of our current Democratic leaders, including Senators Biden, Clinton, Kerry, and Reid, supported it.

    Shortly thereafter, in light of American determination to deal with the situation decisively (shown by Congress’s resolution and military build-up in the Middle East started by Bush), Saddam invited inspectors back in and the UNSC adopted a resolution authorizing these inspection in November 2002 (while, under pressure from France and Russia, avoiding including an automatic military use provision in case of non-compliance by Iraq). So gaining inspectors’ access to Iraq was not a diplomatic win but rather a win for a credible use of force approach used by America.

    The new chief weapons inspector, Hans Blix, came back to the UNSC in January and March of 2003 and stated that full cooperation from Iraq still had not been achieved. He asked for additional time but it was also obvious that personally Blix was against using force to disarm Saddam no matter what. On the other hand, France and Russia made it clear that they would never support a UN resolution authorizing war in Iraq, though it was obvious that the main reason for that was those countries’ economic and political ties to Saddam rather than anything else (so if oil played a role, it was for France, not America, according to Volker’s report).

    And here is another thought: Imagine that Blix would have cleared Saddam after all required inspections. All UN sanctions would have been lifted (actually, France even wanted to lift them in late 90’s) and Saddam would have been free to do anything, including resuming his quest for the WMD’s (and why would he not try again?). This time he would have been more careful and would not invade Kuwait until AFTER having nukes in which case the world would have sighed and let Saddam have it… and who knows what else.

    The war itself (I emphasize here: the war, not the post war events) was a huge success: quick and decisive victory with minimal casualties. The Iraqi army was defeated and Saddam’s government was gone within a few weeks. None of the problems predicted by the war opponents materialized. Saddam did not have a chance to attack American bases or inflict significant casualties as he bragged he would, the war on its own did not destabilize the Middle East (it happened later during the Arab Spring), and no increase in terrorism against the US occurred either. And neither was American economy harmed by this war.

    So it is important to understand that a war and post-war reconstruction are two distinctly different events. The goal of a war is to defeat the enemy country and remove its government (for example, the Nazis). The post-war reconstruction’s goal is to help the former enemy to rebuild and hopefully not hold anger and resentment; this is not a necessary component of a war and it may work (like in Germany and Japan) or may not (like in Iraq). So let’s imagine a guy working at McDonald’s who wants to advance and for that he needs a college degree. He goes to college but the life of a freshman is hard so he starts drinking and ends up hitting someone while driving drunk; consequently, he ends up in jail. Now, does it mean that his idea of going to college was wrong? If post Iraq war reconstruction was done badly and unnecessarily and had negative consequences, it is illogical to conclude that the war itself was a bad idea.

    In fact, quite a few positive things happened right after the war. In light of lightning American victory and show of force, Libya gave up its nuclear weapons program which no one even knew about (unfortunately, Obama punished Kaddafi for that in 2011 by bombing him – and no one protested this bombing). Both North Korea and Iran expressed willingness to discuss their nuclear programs (Bush just didn’t take their offers probably hoping to get more later on). Global terrorism subsided immediately after the victory because even terrorists fear overwhelming force and determination. And that was all in addition to having one less brutal dictator in the world.

    There is no doubt that many mistakes were made after the military victory. First and foremost, the very notion of neo-conservatives that it was possible to build a real democracy in Iraq was a fallacy – Iraq was not ready for that (of course, this notion is based on a very liberal idea that all people are good and crave democracy). And dissolving the Iraqi army was also a huge error. Actually, the right course of action would have been to come, defeat and capture Saddam, and leave. That would have left an impression in the world that America is strong and willing to fight but yet unselfish thus helping maintain its superpower status for many years to come. Unfortunately, American efforts to help Iraqis and avoid civilian casualties were misinterpreted as weakness thus quickly negating all the positives of the military victory itself.

    So let us all separate facts from fiction and war from post-war rebuilding.

    • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 04/26/2016 - 09:04 am.

      WW2 was ended with an official surrender. Hoisting a banner on a carrier, “Mission Accomplished”, is not the same thing.

      Differentiating between war and post-war is pretty difficult if one or more of the parties does not acknowledge the end of the war.

      • Submitted by Jim Million on 04/27/2016 - 04:19 pm.

        Ended by Trials

        One logically might believe Saddam “surrendered” at his mini-bunker without committing suicide. Hitler and Goebbels committed suicide in their bunker.

        Saddam was tried, convicted and hanged…pretty much like the remaining NAZI guys. Göring took cyanide the night before execution.

        That’s pretty much how WW II and Iraq War “ended.” Reconstruction was/is quite a different matter in Iraq.

        As for WW II banners…I’ll look into that.

    • Submitted by Dan Berg on 04/26/2016 - 10:54 am.


      It is completely irrational to separate the war from its aftermath. Bombing stuff is relatively simple, especially given the overwhelming superiority the U.S. had in equipment, technology and training. But those who chose war chose to be responsible for the aftermath. Unfortunately, none of them were even close to capable of dealing with the consequences of their choice. Mainly because there likely wasn’t a way it could have gone much differently one the primary military action was concluded. But again, that was a failure in the decision to go to war in the first place.

  7. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 04/26/2016 - 08:50 pm.


    Mr. Rovick, I would say that capturing the head of the state and handing him to a government that you have installed would constitute a total victory. I would also say that Saddam’s being in jail is an acknowledgement of the end of war.

    Mr. Berg, there is no rule that “those who chose war chose to be responsible for the aftermath” (the Soviet Union won the WWII but didn’t take any responsibility for Germany and Japan after that). And I did show how it could have gone differently: Saddam is captured, Bush declares victory, and pulls all the troops back – that easy. So no, there was no failure in a decision to go to war in Iraq, just like there is no failure in a decision to go to college in my example.

    • Submitted by Dan Berg on 04/26/2016 - 10:24 pm.

      And the Soviet Union is….

      So the Soviet Union is your positive example? A state with a dictator every bit as bad as the one defeated in Germany. You might want to try again. It seems you arguing that we should have disposed of Saddam, dropped the mic and come home and everything would have been hunky-dory. Your argument is the same as saying that the nude jump off the high-bridgewent well it was just the landing that was screwed up so we shouldn’t blame the decision to jump.

      Those that supported war own the consequences. On the incredibly rare occasions in which war is the right answer kudos, the other 99% of the time they have to deal with the fact they are willing accessories to murder and morally should be treated as such.

      • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 04/27/2016 - 07:15 am.


        The Soviet Union was not a positive example but just an example. There may be international laws requiring that occupying power to take care of the occupied but nothing requiring the conquering power to stay and rebuild. And your analogy with the jump is incorrect because once you jump without parachute, you can’t prevent the hard landing so the latter is an inevitable result of the former; with the war, there is no hard connection between starting the war and staying after winning. So yes, we should have dispose of Saddam and come home.

        Of course, those who support the war own the consequences of the war. But those who support the war do not necessarily support rebuilding a country that lost the war so they are not responsible for failure of that policy. Of course, those who support NOT having a war, also own the consequences and may be considered willing accessory to murder that occurs because bad guys are allowed to do what they wanted to do. Therefore, Chamberlain is responsible for the WWII and Obama is responsible for 400,000 dead in Syria, the same as he is responsible for the mess in Libya where he did engage in a war..

  8. Submitted by Dan Berg on 04/27/2016 - 08:57 am.

    Not how responsibility works

    Chamberlain didn’t cause WW2 in Europe, Hitler and Stalin were the primary drivers and bad actors. Failing to stop somebody from doing something terrible is not the moral equivalent of doing something terrible. If it were we would all be guilty of every bad act on the planet because we all fail to do everything possible to stop them. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to stop bad behavior but we need to understand the

    My analogy of the jump is 100% apt. The person who makes the decision to jump is responsible for having a working plan on how to land. Those who supported the war in Iraq had no such plan. You seem to be suggesting we could have destroyed the existing military and state structure of Iraq and left and would not have been responsible for the consequences. So if the civil war had been even bloodier and an ISIS like organization had popped up earlier massacring thousands and burying them in mass graves you wouldn’t feel that those who selected war would have any responsibility.

    You seem to pick and choose when you want to be responsible for your decisions based on how you feel about the consequences. Drawing an abitrary line be action and consequence while at the same time claiming non-action stopping bad behavior is the equivalent of he bad action itself. If that were the case isn’t failing to rebuild a country after the war wrong?

    • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 04/27/2016 - 07:16 pm.

      Who is responsible

      Chamberlain did not cause the WWII and I never said that he was as much responsible for it as Hitler and Stalin but responsible for it nevertheless because he could have prevented it.

      Yes, a person who jumps is responsible for having a plan for landing. A person starting a war is responsible for figuring what to do after that. In this regard, Bush is wrong because he made the wrong choice for finishing the war. But that was not what I was talking about; I was talking about separation of actions. If someone jumped off the bridge and got killed, it doesn’t mean that someone else should not jump with a parachute. If someone started a war and ended it wrongly with a reconstruction, it doesn’t mean that no one should ever start a war.

      I suggested that defeating Iraqi army and capturing Saddam and leaving was the correct choice for America (and that really is the only thing American government should be concerned about) that would have maintained its superpower status (which would have benefited the world, by the way). And no, America would not have been responsible for consequences by any means. Saddam was a murderer so by removing him America would have given Iraqis a chance to improve their lives; how they used that chance would have been up to them and if they failed to use it, America would not have been responsible. If police arrest a husband who abuses his wife, they are not responsible for the wife’s future.

      No I do not pick and choose – I am always responsible for my decisions; however, I am not responsible for the decisions and behavior of others. If my actions made it better for them and/or gave them a chance to make it better for themselves, I did a good job even if they did a bad job. If I donated to charity and they mismanaged the money, I am not responsible for that.

      And finally, America is not responsible for stopping all bad guys – I never said that. It is only responsible for stopping the bad guys who threaten America and its allies. When I brought up Chamberlain and his fault with WWII, I meant that he could have made it much better for his people and his country, not in abstract.

  9. Submitted by Pat Terry on 04/27/2016 - 09:01 am.

    Classic blunder

    Never get involved in a land war in Asia.

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