The Slatest

Combat Without “Combat Missions”

A US Marine from Kilo Company of the 3rd Battalion 8th Marines Regiment conducts a patrol in Garmser, Helmand Province on June 29, 2012. 

Photo by ADEK BERRY/AFP/GettyImages

Much of the congressional discontent surrounding President Obama’s request for an authorization to use military force against ISIS is focused on the question of what role U.S. ground forces will play in the operation. The president’s proposed authorization includes language stating that it “does not authorize the use of the United States Armed Forces in enduring offensive ground combat operations,” leaving others to puzzle over exactly what “enduring” means.

Some Republicans argue that it’s a mistake to pre-emptively rule out military options before going into battle. Some Democrats, meanwhile, contend that the vague language could give Obama or his successor leeway to escalate U.S. involvement. As one former defense official joked about the resolution’s wording, “The 10th Mountain Division could get through that loophole.” 

The president, who was elected on a promise to end the U.S. ground war in Iraq, insists that he has no intention of starting a new one. U.S. airstrikes will continue in both Iraq and Syria, but the ground fighting will be done by the Iraqi military, Kurdish forces, and “moderate Syrian rebels.” The remaining U.S. troops in Iraq do face risks, he said in a statement last week, but “they do not have a combat mission.” However, as recent events in Iraq and Afghanistan have demonstrated, U.S. forces easily find themselves in combat situations even without a “combat mission.”

Today, ISIS militants attacked a base in Iraq’s Anbar province, where U.S. Marines are training Iraqi forces. U.S. officials say that this time, the Iraqi military repelled the attack and that the Americans weren’t under direct threat at any time. But the incident is still a reminder that U.S. forces in Iraq are still a target for ISIS, even if they’re not looking to get into a fight themselves. It’s not at all that hard to imagine a situation in which U.S. trainers would find themselves in a firefight.

The New York Times also reports today that in Afghanistan, where combat operations formally ended in December, there’s been a recent spike in the number of night raids by U.S. special operations officers. The story is short on numbers, but a military official says that the tempo of operations is “unprecedented for this time of year.” (The raids were in part prompted by the recent discovery of a laptop with a trove of information on al-Qaida operations.) An Afghan security official adds, “The official war for the Americans — the part of the war that you could go see — that’s over. It’s only the secret war that’s still going. But it’s going hard.”

In his statement on the ISIS authorization last week, the president explained why there was some flexibility on the question of ground troops. “If we had actionable intelligence about a gathering of ISIL leaders, and our partners didn’t have the capacity to get them, I would be prepared to order our Special Forces to take action because I will not allow these terrorists to have a safe haven,” he said. The statement made it sound as if this would be a rare occurrence, but as the Afghanistan example shows, U.S. forces can still conduct raids on a regular basis even without a formal state of combat. While the U.S. isn’t technically at war anywhere in the world right now, that doesn’t stop American forces from launching attacks, and doesn’t remove the risk of them being attacked. The new resolution, regardless of wording, won’t change that.