TIME Military

The U.S. Should Not Wage War Against ISIS Like Afghanistan and Iraq

Iraqi security forces and Shi'ite militias advance towards town of Amerli from their position in the Ajana
Some of the Iraqi security forces who helped free the town of Amerli over the weekend with help from U.S. air strikes Reuters

But those two campaigns offer clues on how it should be done

The U.S. waged two effective short-term wars following 9/11. Unfortunately, the nation then grafted them onto far more ambitious enterprises that not only drove their costs, in American blood and treasure, through the roof, but also sowed the seeds for failure.

That’s the key takeaway to keep in mind as President Obama weighs what to do about the rampage now being conducted by the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) in both of those nations.

Over the Labor Day weekend, U.S. airpower, combined with Iraqi help on the ground, broke a two-month ISIS siege of the village of Amerli in northern Iraq. The militants had been tightening a noose around the farming town, cutting off water, food and power, and residents had begun dying. Finally, beginning late Saturday, a handful of U.S. air strikes let Iraqi forces and militias break the siege.

While President Obama said the strikes would be “limited in their scope and duration,” their success offers a template, in miniature, for a broader U.S.-led campaign against the Islamist militant group.

It would mark a departure from recent U.S.-led wars. “No one is advocating unilateral invasion, occupation or nation-building,” Republican Senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina wrote in a weekend op-ed column in the New York Times, urging stepped-up U.S. military action against ISIS. “This should be more like Afghanistan in 2001, where limited numbers of advisers helped local forces, with airstrikes and military aid, to rout an extremist army.”

In Afghanistan, the U.S. waged a monthlong campaign that drove the Taliban from Kabul. It relied on U.S. airpower and special operators on the ground, working with local anti-Taliban forces. Then, the U.S. launched a 13-year effort, still under way, to build an Afghan government immune to the Taliban.

Many Taliban fled to Pakistan, where they continue to plot to retake power in Afghanistan once U.S. combat units pull out at the end of 2014. There’s an echo of that Taliban sanctuary in Pakistan in ISIS’s presence in Syria. Any beefed-up campaign against ISIS militants is going to have to attack their targets in both nations.

In Iraq, the U.S. military pushed Saddam Hussein from Baghdad less than three weeks after invading the country. But the U.S. soon became mired in an eight-year nation-building effort that failed to build a nation. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S., despite its best intentions, helped install leaders who have done little to lead their countries to a better place.

And that exposes the futility of the so-called Pottery Barn rule. Retired Army general and then Secretary of State Colin Powell summed it up by saying the U.S. had responsibility for the nations it invaded: “If you break it, you own it.”

But war isn’t always about creating something better. Sometimes it’s simply about ridding the world of terrorists whose zealotry compels them to kill innocents.

For a warrior-diplomat renowned for his earlier guidelines on going to war — the so-called Powell doctrine required a clear and obtainable objective before the first bombs fell — the Pottery Barn rule proved daunting.

Actually, Pottery Barn doesn’t have such a rule. If a customer stumbles into a vase and sends it crashing to the floor, the company writes it off as a cost of doing business. It’s past time for the U.S. government to scrap its misinterpretation of the so-called rule.

War isn’t a positive experience for anyone, and all involved are ill served by pretending otherwise.

If the U.S. deems ISIS to be a threat to U.S. national security, the U.S. military, backed by presidential order and a congressional declaration, should wage unrelenting attacks against it. Instead of embracing Powell’s view, the nation would be better served thinking of war as 17th century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes viewed human life without government: “nasty, brutish and short.”

TIME Military

America Is Using Cannons to Kill Mosquitoes in Iraq

The wreckage of a car belonging to Islamic State militants lies along a road after it was targeted by a U.S. air strike at the entrance to the Mosul Dam
U.S. airpower has been largely limited to attacking and destroying Humvees and other vehicles inside Iraq. Youssef Boudlal / Reuters

The world’s most powerful military is dispatching multi-million-dollar aircraft and their pilots into harm’s way to destroy $70,000 Humvees

The new war the U.S. is waging over Iraq is succeeding. With help on the ground from Kurdish and Iraqi troops, U.S. airstrikes have pushed fighters from the militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) away from the Mosul Dam.

But the daily details of U.S. military airstrikes only serve to highlight how little American military might can do.

“The strikes destroyed an [ISIS] Humvee,” U.S. Central Command said Wednesday.

“One strike destroyed an [ISIS] Humvee near the Mosul Dam,” Sunday’s announcement said.

“The strikes destroyed or damaged three [ISIS] Humvees,” Centcom said a week ago.

The world’s most powerful military is dispatching multi-million-dollar aircraft and their pilots into harm’s way to destroy $70,000 Humvees.

Adding insult to injury, the U.S. gave those vehicles to the Iraqi military, which fumbled them into ISIS hands after the militants overran Mosul and plundered Iraqi arsenals two months ago.

This may be the challenge of 21st century war. The American military, honed by its successes in World War II, is primed to attack militaries that look like it. Germany, Japan, the Soviet Union and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq each presented U.S. war planners with target-rich environments.

But why should anyone confronting U.S. might want to fight on America’s terms? That’s why the U.S. military has been less successful in the target-poor environments of Vietnam, Afghanistan and post-Saddam Hussein Iraq.

President Barack Obama’s 100-plus airstrikes in Iraq against ISIS targets have beaten the jihadists back. Now he’s weighing an expanded campaign that would attack ISIS targets across the border, in Syria.

But any such action lacks a smart and achievable goal. Attacking ISIS in Syria would make the U.S. a de facto ally of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, whose civil war has killed nearly 200,000. It was three years ago this month that Obama said Assad must surrender power.

Most Americans don’t want more military action in the Middle East. Until they do—and their representatives in Congress are willing to back it with a declaration of war against ISIS—letting U.S. warplanes attack U.S.-built-and-paid-for Humvees inside Iraq may be the best, if unsatisfying, option.

TIME Military

The Rescue That Wasn’t

Part of a damaged helicopter is seen lying near the compound where al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad
The tail of a downed Special Ops helicopter inside bin Laden's compound in Pakistan in 2011. The pilots who led that successful mission belonged to a unit created because of a failed rescue effort in Iran 31 years earlier. REUTERS

If you're waiting for perfect intelligence to guarantee success, you'll never launch a military rescue mission

The Pentagon spoiled Americans with its near-perfect grab of Osama bin Laden in May 2011. Save for a wrecked helicopter, Operation Neptune Spear went off without a hitch (assuming, as many Americans did, that taking bin Laden alive was never a top priority).

But the Navy SEALs drew to an inside straight that night in Abbottabad, Pakistan. All the practice in the world can’t trump bum intelligence. And the U.S. intelligence community’s estimates that bin Laden would be in the compound where he died ranged from 30 to 95%. If bin Laden hadn’t been there, the raid would have been deemed a failure, and would perhaps still be a secret.

The Pentagon only confirmed the failed July raid to rescue James Foley, whose murder was made public in a video released by Islamic militants on Tuesday, and several other U.S. hostages in Syria, after word began to leak out late Wednesday. “Unfortunately, the mission was not successful because the hostages were not present at the targeted location,” Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon’s top spokesman, said in a statement.

Such misses have happened before.

In 1970, 56 U.S. troops raided North Vietnam’s Son Tay prison camp to rescue the estimated 55 U.S. POWs believed to be there.

Technically, Operation Ivory Coast succeeded: the U.S., using more than 100 aircraft to support the operation, seized the camp. Unfortunately for the U.S., the North Vietnamese had moved the prisoners a day earlier due to North Vietnamese concerns that the camp was too close to a river that might flood. Two U.S. troops were injured during the mission.

Perhaps the most infamous rescue attempt since then was 1980’s Operation Eagle Claw, the aborted mission to bring home the 52 U.S. hostages held in Tehran after Iran seized the U.S. embassy there. They had been held for six months when President Carter ordered eight choppers on a risky two-night mission to rescue them. But sandstorms and mechanical woes grounded three of them on the first day, forcing the military to scrub the mission. As they withdrew, one of the helicopters hit a refueling plane at the Desert One staging site in the Iranian desert, killing eight U.S. troops.

The fiasco doomed any chance Carter had of winning a second term—Iran released the hostages shortly after Ronald Reagan took office—and led Congress to create the U.S. Special Operations Command to coordinate such efforts in the future. It also led the Army to create the Night Stalkers of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, the unit whose pilots flew the Navy SEALs to bin Laden’s lair.

TIME Middle East

Video Shows Beheading of American Journalist

Journalist James Foley covers the civil war in Aleppo, Syria, in November 2012.
Journalist James Foley covers the civil war in Aleppo, Syria, in November 2012. Nicole Tung—AP

James Foley went missing in November 2012

Updated 11:43 a.m. on Aug. 20

A video posted online Tuesday purportedly shows an Islamist extremist beheading James Foley, an American journalist kidnapped in Syria more than 18 months ago.

A graphic video of the purported killing, which the U.S. government believes to be authentic, was posted online Tuesday and quickly spread on social media. The video, which appears to be the work of the militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, declares the act “A Message to #America (from the #IslamicState)” and retribution for the United States’ intervention against ISIS in Iraq. Some versions of the video and Twitter accounts circulating it were quickly taken offline Tuesday evening, though the video soon appeared on YouTube again.

TIME is not publishing the video. The video also includes a threat to kill Steven Sotloff, a freelance journalist who has written for TIME among other outlets, and has been missing since August 2013.

A spokesperson for the U.S. National Security Council said Wednesday morning the American intelligence community believes the video is authentic.

“The U.S. Intelligence Community has analyzed the recently released video showing U.S. citizens James Foley and Steven Sotloff,” said NSC spokesperson Caitlin Hayden. “We have reached the judgment that this video is authentic.”

A Facebook page affiliated with the Foley family’s campaign for his release posted a message Tuesday evening from his mother, Diane Foley.

“We have never been prouder of our son Jim,” she wrote. “He gave his life trying to expose the world to the suffering of the Syrian people…We thank Jim for all the joy he gave us. He was an extraordinary son, brother, journalist and person. Please respect our privacy in the days ahead as we mourn and cherish Jim.”

White House spokesman Eric Schultz said in a statement Tuesday that President Barack Obama had been briefed on the video and “will continue to receive regular updates.”

The White House announced that Obama will deliver a statement at 12:45 p.m. Wednesday.

Foley “was taken by an organized gang after departing from an internet café in Binesh, Syria,” near the Turkish border, the Federal Bureau of Investigation said in an alert following the Nov. 22, 2012, kidnapping. He was in Binesh covering the Syrian civil war for the GlobalPost website and AFP.

Foley, 40, grew up in New Hampshire, where his parents live.

TIME Crime

War Comes Home: The Militarization of U.S. Police Forces

A look at how the Pentagon's emphasis on better weapons for killing has spread to local police forces that have a much different mission

The fatal shooting of Michael Brown, 18, in Ferguson, Mo., occurred off camera. But the reaction of local police forces, in their efforts to calm the civil unrest following his Aug. 9 shooting by a Ferguson cop, has been documented by hundreds of them. Many Americans were surprised by the martial response, which had the St. Louis suburb looking more like Baghdad or Cairo. Some veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq noted that the cops appeared better-armed and outfitted in middle America than the GIs had been in the war zones. Most of the gear has come from the Pentagon, which has ended up with enormous surpluses of guns, radios, and armored vehicles following the end of the Iraq war and the winding down of the conflict in Afghanistan. Since 1997, some $4.3 billion has been given to the nation’s police forces.

The U.S. military has long tried to reduce the number of troops it needs to send to war by giving them better and more powerful weapons than potential foes. While that logic makes sense on the battlefield, where the goal is to kill the enemy, it doesn’t translate particularly well on American streets, where the goal is to preserve order. The photographs above show how police forces have girded for battle over the past half-century.

TIME Military

Dam Yankees: U.S. Steps Up Bombing in Northern Iraq

IRAQ-UNREST-KURDS-DAM
Smokes rises from U.S. air strikes near Mosul dam on Sunday. Ahmad Al-Ruhbye—AFP/Getty Images

But limiting strikes for political reasons may prove untenable

The Obama Administration made clear last week that its ban against U.S. “boots on the ground” inside Iraq only pertained to combat boots. Sunday, it went back to its dictionary and stretched the definition of “humanitarian” to include offensive bombing strikes against Islamist militants in northern Iraq.

That’s because ever since the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) seized the Mosul dam, it has had the power to release the reservoir behind it, turning the Tigris River downstream into Class V rapids with a 60-foot wall of water.

“The failure of the Mosul Dam could threaten the lives of large numbers of civilians, endanger U.S. personnel and facilities, including the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, and prevent the Iraqi government from providing critical services to the Iraqi populace,” President Barack Obama said in a letter to congressional leaders.

The U.S. military launched 23 airstrikes on ISIS targets over the weekend, including 14 on Sunday. A fleet of fighter-bombers, bombers and drones took out nearly 20 ISIS vehicles—mostly U.S.-built armor and Humvees that ISIS captured from retreating Iraqi forces—on Sunday alone. An Iraq military spokesman said Monday that Iraqi special forces and Kurdish fighters had regained control of the dam, although that claim has not been confirmed.

“These operations are limited in their nature, duration, and scope,” Obama said, “and are being undertaken in coordination with and at the request of the government of Iraq.”

The weekend air strikes nearly doubled the number the U.S. has launched in Iraq since they began Aug. 8, and marked the most coordinated military effort between U.S. and Iraqi forces since the U.S. military left the country in 2011.

Pentagon fingers are crossed that the combination of U.S. air strikes and Iraqi ground operations will be sufficient to defeat ISIS. Defense officials, and the White House, are acutely aware that the American public has no appetite for deeper involvement—military or otherwise—in Iraq.

The operation makes military sense, but justifying it using the original two-prong test—Obama said Aug. 7 that the U.S. would attack targets in Iraq only “to protect our American personnel, and… to help save thousands of Iraqi civilians who are trapped on a mountain without food and water and facing almost certain death”—may prove too convenient.

“This policy of not dealing with it as an ecosystem I think is wrong,” Michigan Republican Rep. Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, told CBS on Sunday. “They have a long-term plan about where they’re going that would establish their caliphate from Beirut through Syria through Iraq.”

ISIS wants to create that caliphate from which it would seek to attack the U.S. and other targets in the west. Every time the Administration expands its military footprint in Iraq to deal with the threat—and justifies it on humanitarian grounds, or to protect U.S. personnel—it restrains its freedom to act the next time if stronger military action is required.

TIME Military

Pentagon Taps Crowdsourcing to Chart Future Threats

The Pentagon is already crowdsourcing weapons design. Now it's going to use it to help develop U.S. national security strategy. DARPA

Reaching out to multitudes online to determine how to best prevent and wage tomorrow’s wars

Think the Pentagon was ill-prepared and stumbled after it invaded Iraq and Afghanistan? Think you could have drafted a better war plan?

Well, the U.S. Department of Defense may agree with you. That’s why it said late Thursday that it’s seeking a “crowd-sourcing entity,” mostly likely a contractor, to chart “the types of future challenges to national security for which the President of the United States would expect U.S. armed forces to have the ability to address.”

The Pentagon wants the winning bidder to brainstorm online with “a large and diverse group of people collaborating in real time” to improve how the nation prepares for, and fights, its wars.

Crowdsourcing is the 21st Century’s version of putting our heads together, via the Internet, to tackle a problem and come up with the best solution. Instead of a handful of experts—war-planners, for example—it relies on a constellation of thousands or more individuals, often unpaid, who funnel their ideas into a central clearinghouse, where the optimum ones supposedly float to the surface.

The military is already using crowdsourcing on a more limited scale, to design a next-generation combat vehicle and considering its potential to help track nuclear proliferation.

But this latest proposal could put crowdsourcing’s fruits inside the Tank, the top-secret Pentagon lair where the nation’s senior generals and admirals train, equip and conduct the nation’s wars.

The Defense Department stresses that the crowdsourcerer it hires will only “enhance the Department’s understanding of the future security environment” and won’t actually be drafting war plans. But it’s encouraging creative thinking: “An understanding of a range of alternative futures and the types of national security challenges they may present is necessary to inform strategy development and force planning analysis within the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense [for] Policy.”

The Pentagon wants the “crowd-sourcing entity” to produce these three “Performance Objectives”:

a. Identify alternative futures and global and regional security environments in the 2020-2025 timeframe that considers military, sociological, economic, scientific, technological, and environmental trends and potential shocks with implications for the Department.

b. Generate innovative scenarios that present pathways to a crisis or conflict that is antithetical to U.S. national security interests. Scenarios will provide a narrative description that captures a representative potential future national security challenge and includes the following key elements: identity of key actors, their interests and objectives, primary drivers to conflict and rationale for key actors’ decision-making and actions, key capabilities they could use in a crisis or conflict, description of representative activities they would take (i.e., the manner in which they would use their capabilities to achieve their objectives), and role of third parties. Scenarios should remain within the bounds of plausibility.

c. Develop and provide quick-turn analyses exploring the implications for the Department on new and/or potentially game-changing military capabilities of the adversary identified in the alternative futures environment and/or the innovative scenarios to inform the development of alternative strategies and force planning options to mitigate the impacts of the capabilities.

“There is no requirement for the work to be conducted at the Pentagon,” the solicitation adds, “with the exception of periodic briefings of deliverables as stated in the Performance Objectives.”

If you’re interested in helping hone the nation’s future war-fighting environment, you’d better get cracking. The Pentagon is seeking a three-year deal beginning next month, and the deadline to apply is Sept. 4. “A written notice of award or acceptance of an offer, mailed or otherwise furnished to the successful offeror within the time for acceptance specified in the offer, shall result in a binding contract without further action by either party,” the Pentagon adds. The winner will not have access to classified information, which could help things.

The solicitation warns that it may reject any bidder whose offer “is evaluated to be unrealistic in terms of program commitments, including contract terms and conditions, or unrealistically high or low in cost/price when compared to Government estimates, such that the proposal is deemed to reflect an inherent lack of competence or failure to comprehend the complexity and risks of the program.”

“An inherent lack of competence or failure to comprehend the complexity and risks of the program?” Talk about unilateral disarmament. Such a requirement would have kept the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq on the drawing boards.

TIME Military

Why Ferguson Looks So Much Like Iraq

Outrage In Missouri Town After Police Shooting Of 18-Yr-Old Man
A police officer helping to keep Ferguson calm on Wednesday. Scott Olson / Getty Images

The Pentagon has provided local police with $4.3 billion worth of military hardware

The photographs and videos of police trying to calm the rioting in Ferguson, Mo., look like a war zone. There’s the black-clad special-ops cops, backed by armored tactical vehicles that wouldn’t look out of place on a battlefield. The police are doing their best to restore order following Saturday’s police killing of unarmed Michael Brown, 18. But their tools and tactics have grabbed the attention of some of the nation’s real soldiers dispatched to fight its post-9/11 wars.

Brandon Friedman, who served as an Army officer with the 101st Airborne in Afghanistan and Iraq, tweeted a pair of photographs contrasting a policeman in Ferguson with one of him on the eve of the 2003 Iraq invasion. “The gentleman on the left,” he said of the Missouri cop Wednesday, “has more personal body armor and weaponry than I did while invading Iraq.”

“Army underequipped pros,” a commenter said. “Cops here overeq/amateurs.”

Protests Continue In Missouri Town After Police Shooting Of 18-Yr-Old Man
A Missouri State Highway Patrol tactical vehicle patrolling Ferguson. Michael B. Thomas / Getty Images

Actually, that’s not right. Local police departments are strapped for cash and can’t afford the high-tech body armor, communications gear, weapons and armored vehicles that have replaced the local cop’s nightstick, revolver and cruiser. Most of this beefed-up arsenal is coming from the world’s biggest Army-Navy surplus store: the Pentagon.

The scenes from Ferguson have reached a point where Mashable has posted photos from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Ferguson—and asked readers to try to figure out where they’re from. The Department of Defense told USA Today last year that Ferguson acquired two Humvees, a 10-kilowatt generator and an empty flatbed trailer. St. Louis County, whose police have been out in force in Ferguson, acquired much more equipment, according to the Missouri Department of Public Safety, including night vision goggles, Humvees and more.

With the Mine-Resistant, Ambush-Protected vehicles, Kevlar-vested and helmeted personnel, outfitted with serious-looking firepower, in some snapshots it’s tough to tell Ferguson from Firdos Square in Baghdad or Farah, Afghanistan.

To be sure, there are times when a law-enforcement challenge—rescuing hostages or taking down terrorists—requires such heavy-duty gear, including some military handdowns. But the use of SWAT—Special Weapons and Tactics— teams has leapfrogged from such serious cases to less-serious episodes of trying to calm civil unrest, where a less-confrontational approach might work better.

“American policing has become unnecessarily and dangerously militarized, in large part through federal programs that have armed state and local law enforcement agencies with the weapons and tactics of war, with almost no public discussion or oversight,” the American Civil Liberties Union reported in June. “The use of hyper-aggressive tools and tactics results in tragedy for civilians and police officers, escalates the risk of needless violence, destroys property, and undermines individual liberties.”

Outrage In Missouri Town After Police Shooting Of 18-Yr-Old Man
Police on guard in Ferguson on Tuesday. Scott Olson / Getty Images

The Pentagon encourages the trend. Beginning with its effort to help fight the war on illegal drugs in 1997, the Defense Department’s provision of military gear to local police departments exploded following 9/11. “Since its inception, the [Law Enforcement Support Office] program has transferred more than $4.3 billion worth of property,” LESO says on its website. “In 2013 alone, $449,309,003.71 worth of property was transferred to law enforcement.” (Seventy-one cents?)

There’s a bit of a sales pitch, too: “If your law enforcement agency chooses to participate, it may become one of the more than 8,000 participating agencies to increase its capabilities, expand its patrol coverage, reduce response times, and save the American taxpayer’s investment,” it adds, along with a proviso noting that the weapons “are on loan from the DOD and remain the property of the DOD. … Trading, bartering or selling of the weapons is strictly prohibited.”

In 2011 and 2012, the ACLU estimated that an 63 police departments received 500 Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicles, armored 20-ton behemoths (3-5 mpg) that were designed to defeat enemy roadside bombs in Afghanistan and Iraq. The New York Times reported in June that the Pentagon has given local police forces 435 other armored vehicles, 533 aircraft and nearly 94,000 machine guns.

This has at least a few cops wondering what’s going on. “We’re not the military,” Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank has said. “Nor should we look like an invading force coming in.”

An ex-Boston police lieutenant—from a force not known for its gentler, kinder demeanor—agrees. “Have no doubt, police in the United States are militarizing, and in many communities, particularly those of color, the message is being received loud and clear: ‘You are the enemy,’” Tom Nolan, who spent 27 years on the Beantown beat, wrote for Defense One in June. “Police officers are increasingly arming themselves with military-grade equipment such as assault rifles, flashbang grenades, and Mine Resistant Ambush Protected, or MRAP, vehicles and dressing up in commando gear before using battering rams to burst into the homes of people who have not been charged with a crime.”

From a Pentagon website seeking to interest local law enforcement agencies in trading up to an MRAP. DoD

The ACLU said its analysis showed that 79% of SWAT missions were for drug investigations, while 7% were for hostage or barricade situations. It also noted that more than half of the SWAT deployments tracked were aimed at minorities. “The incidents we studied,” it added, “revealed stark, often extreme, racial disparities in the use of SWAT locally, especially in cases involving search warrants.”

We’ve been through similar, if not precise, episodes before: Think of the Ohio National Guard killing four students with their M1 Garand rifles at Kent State University in Ohio in 1970, for example. The troops turned on the students after some lobbed rocks and tear-gas canisters toward them. A presidential commission refrained from concluding why the Guardsmen fired the estimated 67 shots, but concluded that “the indiscriminate firing of rifles into a crowd of students and the deaths that followed were unnecessary, unwarranted, and inexcusable.”

Of course, they were military troops. In Ferguson, those now wielding them are local law-enforcement officers, many of whom lack the training—and the command and control of their use—that most military units receive.

-Additional reporting by Josh Sanburn

TIME Military

U.S. Boots Stepping Closer to Iraq

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Getty Images

Administration asserts they wouldn’t be in combat, but the enemy might disagree

Those increasingly loud footsteps you hear could be the sound of U.S. military boots marching closer to Iraq, following a visit Wednesday by 20 American troops to plot a way to rescue thousands of Yezidi refugees on a mountain surrounded by Islamic militants in northern Iraq. While they reported fewer stranded than originally thought, Pentagon officials said, a rescue operation still might be needed.

President Barack Obama made it clear two months ago that American combat boots wouldn’t be headed back there, where 4,486 U.S. troops died between 2003 and 2011.

“We will not be sending troops back into combat in Iraq,” Obama pledged.

But you can drive an M-1 tank through that “into combat” caveat. It implies, as a top White House aide suggested anew Wednesday, that U.S. troops can go into harm’s way in Iraq and avoid combat. The first rule of war, old soldiers say, is that the enemy always gets a vote.

Other aides have been making similar distinctions. “This is not a combat, boots-on-the-ground operation,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told Marines on Tuesday in California about a possible Iraq mission. “We’re not going to have that kind of operation.”

Hagel’s spokesman, Rear Admiral John Kirby, repeated that refrain Wednesday. “The President’s been very clear,” he told CNN. “There’s not going to be boots on the ground in a combat role.”

Deputy national-security adviser Ben Rhodes said Wednesday that U.S. troops might be put on the ground to help rescue Yezidi refugees stranded along the Sinjar mountain range in northern Iraq. “The role of U.S. forces is not one of re-entering combat on the ground,” Rhodes said. “In terms of the kinetic actions that are being taken” — bullets and missiles, in other words — “those are in the form of air strikes.”

But that assumes that if U.S. forces go into Iraq to help rescue the refugees, they’ll be calling the shots. Literally.

Unfortunately, the militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, or ISIS, are eager to fight U.S. troops, Pentagon officials believe. Some are suicidal, and would like nothing more than to die in a firefight with U.S. soldiers or Marines.

There are limits to how much protection American troops on the ground can expect from U.S. warplanes and helicopter gunships above. And the nearer aircraft come to provide such firepower, the more vulnerable they become to whatever antiaircraft weapons ISIS has.

Whatever Obama decides, U.S. troops will be able to defend themselves. “Force protection is always a mission for U.S. personnel in any country in the world,” Rhodes said. What Obama has “ruled out is reintroducing U.S. forces into combat on the ground in Iraq.” In other words, if U.S. troops are sent into Iraq on a rescue mission, think of them as a football team that plays only defense.

TIME Military

How the Pentagon Would Save the Stranded Refugees in Northern Iraq

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CH-47 Chinook helicopters, like this one over Iraq, could be used to airlift stranded Iraqi refugees to safety. Getty Images

With clock ticking, airborne rescue mission gaining favor — but it won't be easy

No one knows how many Yazidis are trapped by Islamic militants in the Sinjar mountain range in northwestern Iraq. Some estimate they total 35,000. And there are questions about whether or not a land corridor can be cleared to rescue them—or adequate landing zones found for an airborne exodus before they die for lack of food and water.

But there are no doubts about one point: the U.S. military is the best-outfitted and trained force in the world capable of leading such an effort. That’s why the U.S. military dispatched 130 more advisers to northern Iraq on Tuesday to draft just such a plan.

The refugees’ plight—many have been in the mountains for a week or more—is now the U.S. military’s most urgent task.

The U.S. military faces two key problems in trying to accomplish the mission. The first is President Obama’s pledge that there will be no U.S. “boots on the ground” inside Iraq. “This is not a combat boots on the ground kind of operation,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told Marines at Camp Pendleton, Calif., on Tuesday. “Short of that, there are some things that we can continue to do—and we are doing.”

Without U.S. boots on the ground, that means any land-rescue effort would probably require at least some non-U.S. military ground forces to keep the forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) away from the rescue operation while it takes place. U.S. airstrikes in recent days have kept ISIS forces at bay, but a massive rescue operation is likely to require ground forces.

But allies won’t go where the U.S. fears to tread, which means only local troops—the Iraqi army or the Kurdish Peshmerga forces—will be available. The Iraqi army collapsed when ISIS stormed Mosul in June, and there is little evidence it has improved since. The Peshmerga are a more likely candidate, but their small arms can’t defeat the U.S.-supplied armor and artillery that ISIS units captured from Iraqi forces in recent months.

Plus, mounting a land-rescue operation may take more time than the stranded Yazidi have. They are being kept alive by airdrops of food and water by the U.S. and other nations. Continuing reports and video footage of dying civilians are likely to compel the Obama Administration to seek a faster rescue option, which would be by air. The U.S. would seek help from other nations in carrying out the risky endeavor.

Once again, such an operation would require allied ground forces to ensure the security of pickup zones, and to help suppress ISIS’s limited, but lethal, anti-aircraft capability.

Britain said Tuesday it was dispatching several CH-47 Chinook helicopters to the region, and the U.S. is expected to follow suit. The distinctive twin-rotor choppers have a range of 450 miles, and some models can carry up to 55 people. But with up to 35,000 refugees needing to be rescued, that adds up to a lot of flights over a lot of days.

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