In the days following the Special Forces raid in Iraq last week in which a U.S. soldier was killed, the Pentagon insisted that the raid—the first time U.S. ground forces had fought alongside Kurdish forces against ISIS—was a “unique circumstance” and not “something that’s going to now happen on a regular basis.” Above all, they insisted that U.S. ground forces were “not in an active combat mission” in Iraq or Syria.
That line lasted about a week.
Yesterday, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the U.S. “won’t hold back from supporting capable partners in opportunistic attacks against ISIL, or conducting such missions directly whether by strikes from the air or direct action on the ground.” In other words, we’re likely to see more American boots on the ground in both Iraq and Syria. Carter also finally acknowledged late last week that the raid Hawija, Iraq constituted “combat.”
Back on Sept. 10, 2014, when he announced the beginning of the U.S. operation against ISIS, Obama promised the nation that unlike the war in Afghanistan and the previous war in Iraq, the campaign would “not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil.”
In addition to airstrikes, the president promised to “strengthen the opposition [in Syria] as the best counterweight to extremists like ISIL, while pursuing the political solution necessary to solve Syria’s crisis once and for all.”
All of this is now plainly untrue. The American-backed rebel force in Syria is a tiny fraction of what it was supposed to be, it looks more likely than ever that Assad will be in power, and U.S. troops will continue to be dispatched to fight ISIS on the ground. The operation certainly still differs from the Bush-era wars Obama compares it to in its size and the amount of risk to American soldiers. But it shares with them a tendency toward mission creep and ever-shifting goals and tactics.