WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama’s military campaign against Islamic State group extremists has already crept beyond the narrow parameters he first outlined three months ago.
But military experts both inside and outside of the administration argue that even more may be needed for the mission to succeed, including embedding U.S. ground troops with Iraqi security forces who are on the front line of the fight against the violent militants. Taking that step could put Obama dangerously close to violating his pledges to keep Americans out of combat in Iraq.
For Obama, re-engaging in combat in Iraq would not only mark a reversal of his promises with regard to the current mission, but also undercut one of the broader causes of his presidency, which has been to end lengthy American wars and avoid new ones. But if his military commanders ask for ground troops and he rejects the request, he could be accused of putting his legacy ahead of the mission’s success.
Already Obama has shown a willingness to expand the size and scope of the fight against the Islamic State extremist group. After first announcing a limited airstrike campaign, the U.S. is now going after militant targets across Iraq and is expected to extend the attacks into Syria. About 1,600 U.S. troops have also been deployed to Iraq to train local security forces and help safeguard U.S. personnel in the country. And the Pentagon will soon start training and equipping Syrian rebels to fight the militants.
The president has insisted that Iraqi security forces, the Kurdish Peshmerga and the Syrian opposition fighters will be the ones engaged in a ground battle with the Islamic State group. But some of Obama’s current and former military advisers have raised the prospect that unless American troops are also engaged in that effort, it will be difficult to degrade and defeat the militants that have moved freely across the blurred border between Iraq and Syria.
“They’re not going to be able to be successful against ISIS strictly from the air, or strictly depending on the Iraqi forces or the Peshmerga,” said Robert Gates, Obama’s former defense secretary, using one of the acronyms for the Islamic State group. “So there will be boots on the ground if there’s to be any hope of success in the strategy.”
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress he would indeed recommend that step if Obama’s strategy fails. Dempsey also said that about half of the Iraqi army is incapable of partnering effectively with the U.S. to roll back the Islamic State group, suggesting that the likelihood more Americans would be needed on the ground is high.
The president responded swiftly to Dempsey’s comments by emphasizing his pledge to keep Americans out of combat missions.
“The American forces that have been deployed to Iraq do not and will not have a combat mission,” Obama told troops at U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Florida. “As your commander in chief, I will not commit you and the rest of our armed forces to fighting another ground war in Iraq.”
But White House officials have left open the possibility that Obama could accept a recommendation to put ground troops in forward operating positions alongside Iraqi and Kurdish Peshmerga forces. While officials say those troops would not be sent with a specific combat mission, they would be armed, as are the 1,600 military personnel that have been deployed to Iraq this summer. And if they come under attack, the forces have the authority to fight back.
Richard Fontaine, president of the Center for New American Security, said that would leave Obama with “something of a rhetorical quandary.”
“From a realistic and even legal standpoint, what’s going to be happening in Iraq is going to look a lot like combat,” said Fontaine, a former State Department official who also advised Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., on foreign policy.
While Obama has broad public support for carrying out airstrikes against the Islamic State group, it’s unclear whether a war-weary public would also approve of an expanded ground mission. A recent CNN/ORC poll found that while 76 percent of Americans back strikes in Iraq and 75 percent back strikes in Syria, just 38 percent favor sending U.S. ground troops to those countries.
Should Obama have to take that step, the White House’s goal would be to ensure that the ground forces were not solely American. Administration officials have been pressing other countries, particularly Iraq and Syria’s Arab neighbors, to commit their own ground troops to help bolster local security forces.
While administration officials say they’ve received positive feedback from Arab nations, there have yet to be any specific commitments to send ground troops or take other direct military action. Obama will make direct appeals for support when he arrives in New York Tuesday for meetings with foreign leaders at the annual United Nations General Assembly gathering.
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