Mission Leap

5 signs your "limited" Iraq intervention is spiraling out of control.

Win McNamee/Getty Images
Win McNamee/Getty Images

On Feb. 12, 1993, journalist Christopher Burns filed a story from Somalia containing a term that had never before appeared in English language press: "The U.S.-led military mission to halt clan warfare and get aid to the needy has unofficially widened its role to include such tasks as rebuilding houses, digging wells and creating police forces. Officials call it ‘mission creep.’"

As America’s recent intervention in Iraq gathers steam, the phrase and its implicit warnings have reemerged among policymakers and public commentators. Worryingly, though, it seems some top officials don’t get it. As President Barack Obama noted on Tuesday: "Typically, what happens with mission creep is when we start deciding that we’re the ones who have to do it all ourselves. And because of the excellence of our military that can work for a time. We learned that in Iraq." This is a puzzling lesson to take away from Iraq: rather than preferring unilateralism, the Bush administration begged every country with deployable military forces to participate in the invasion and occupation.

On Wednesday, Pentagon spokesperson Rear Adm. John Kirby offered a more concise definition: "mission creep doesn’t refer to numbers of sorties, numbers of troops, numbers of anything. It doesn’t refer to timelines. It doesn’t even refer to intensity. It’s about the mission itself." This is true in the technical sense of how the Pentagon defines a mission: "The task, together with the purpose, that clearly indicates the action to be taken and the reason therefore."

The problem with relying upon U.S. officials’ articulation and description of military missions is that there is a time-honored history of denying, dissembling, or outright lying about mission creep — while it occurs. This includes the U.S. bombing of 113,716 sites in Cambodia between 1965 to 1973 while the Johnson and Nixon administrations claimed otherwise; Reagan’s deployment of 1,800 Marines to Lebanon, initially "to provide an interposition force at agreed locations," but later openly taking sides in that country’s civil war; and the 2011 intervention in Libya to provide airpower for regime change, just after the Obama repeatedly said this would not happen. "Saying one thing and doing another" has also characterized U.S. non-battlefield drone strikes from their introduction in November 2002.

Given the tendency of the United States to routinely undertake additional military missions, all while contending that they are not, everyone should be skeptical of how officials justify and depict the ongoing intervention in Iraq. Nevertheless, here are five clues to look for and things to think about, when considering whether mission creep is occurring now in Iraq.

1. Don’t fence me in.

Presidents articulate missions in a manner to assure they have the greatest flexibility to do whatever they want. Even the supposedly limited missions for the current airstrikes — humanitarian assistance and protecting U.S. personnel — are broad enough to justify practically anything. Indeed, most countries claim that their uses of force are strictly to protect their citizens or save someone’s life — in the Western world, rarely is vengeance or bloodlust an acceptable reason to bomb someone. Given that there are more than 10,000 U.S. government employees or contractors in Iraq — and militant groups seeking to attack them or the critical infrastructure that supports them — there are many new types of combat operations that could be justified to protect them. Moreover, the Obama administration already contends the right to use force anywhere on Earth where "the relevant governmental authorities … cannot or will not effectively address the threat to U.S. persons." Iraq is only the most recent country where this broad remit has been exercised.

2. We’ve got people on the ground.

The need for such force protection airstrikes only increases with each additional troop or "advisor" and contractor sent to Iraq. The number of U.S. troops in Iraq has steadily grown since the June 16 announcement of a deployment of up to 300 military personnel. By June 30, three Special Forces units had deployed, and just one day later President Obama stated that an additional 200 troops would be sent to Baghdad. On Aug. 13, it was announced that 130 military advisers would be sent — bringing the total number of American military personnel in Iraq to more than 1,000 — and the Pentagon is discussing sending another 300 troops.

Alongside these acknowledged forces are thousands of private contractors providing logistics and security support on behalf of the United States. In January, U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) quit providing data for Iraq when it optimistically announced: "This will be the final USCENTCOM report on Iraq contractor numbers." Until CENTCOM republishes this data in its quarterly reports, it will be impossible to know how many contractors are in Iraq, and what percentage of them are U.S. citizens. But as a point of comparison, during the height of the Iraq and Afghanistan deployments there were slightly more Pentagon-employed private contractors than U.S. troops. Thus, when U.S. officials provide an updated estimate for troop levels in Iraq, it is safe to double it — since that number will not include contractors. Again, more U.S. personnel and facilities dispersed throughout Iraq raise the prospect of more force protection strikes.

3. Call the exterminator.

Adam Siegel’s excellent 1998 examination of the concept provides a useful typology for diagnosing the onset of mission creep:

• Task accretion is the general assumption of tasks necessary to achieve the mission’s initial objective.

• Mission shift occurs when forces adopt tasks that expand the mission.

• Mission transition is an unclear or unstated transition to a new set of objectives.

• Mission leap occurs with a clear decision — an explicit choice — to change the mission and, therefore, the military’s tasks.

Any of these changes could occur in the near-term with or without a clear decision. There are indicators that future airstrikes could expand to simply kill suspected Islamic State (IS) members as policymakers and officials increasingly demand the defeat or total destruction of the terrorist organization. On Sunday, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) termed IS as "evil people that need to be defeated." Similarly, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) offered his belief that the United States has "a compelling strategic interest in defeating this group." The following day, State Department spokesperson Marie Harf stated: "Look, we believe that ISIS needs to be taken out." And on Aug. 20, Secretary of State John Kerry agreed, declaring: "ISIL and the wickedness it represents must be destroyed." On Aug. 21, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, capped it off, saying, "This is an organization that has an apocalyptic, end-of-days strategic vision which will eventually have to be defeated." 

Eliminationist counterterrorism objectives such as these are fanciful, but not uncommon. In April 2012, then-White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan claimed: "We’re not going to rest until al Qaeda the organization is destroyed and is eliminated from areas in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Africa, and other areas." You probably noticed that never happened, and no officials were held accountable for the glaring mismatch of stated objectives and accomplishments.

Similarly, in Iraq, U.S. airpower, even in coordination with local ground forces, will not eliminate IS, which intelligence officials estimate to include at least 10,000 committed fighters. However, as the Wall Street Journal reported, the tactically successful airstrikes around the Mosul Dam are "creating momentum for a broader campaign that could take American air power to the militant group’s heartland." That apparent momentum may have been invigorated with the video release of the Islamic State’s latest savagery — the abhorrent beheading of American journalist James Foley. As an anonymous senior Pentagon official crudely described it, "Hunt while the hunting’s good" — meaning kill whoever you can.

4. But they need it!

Watch for the inevitable demands by Kurdish and Iraqi politicians for greater airpower, intelligence, and weapons support to defeat the insurgency in its midst. "[The United States’] technology capability will offer a lot of intelligence information and monitoring of the desert and many things which we are in need of," said Ahmed Khalaf al-Dulaimi, the governor of Anbar province. Note that word: need. As Ghazi Qadir, head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party in Gwer, stated, "U.S. assistance on the ground is very important to us. It needs to continue as we gradually push forward." Iraqi Minister of Parliament Zainab al-Sahlani, framed her expectations a bit differently, but in equally demanding terms: "The U.S. has to provide further military assistance to the Iraqi army per agreements between the two sides to assist with the fight against terrorist groups." Then there’s always the guilt trip, as Sunni lawmaker Haider al-Mutlaq put it, noting that Iraqis were "expecting the U.S. to expand their airstrikes," otherwise "Iraq will remain in its broken state and the U.S. will be responsible for that."

President Obama might not believe that the United States is Iraq’s air force, but Iraqi politicians and officials increasingly will. And Iraq’s security could become America’s obligation, especially the use of airpower to assure the newly formed government in Baghdad survives and thrives.

5. Watch out for talking stars.

Beware of those who carelessly use the concept to prevent discussions of military missions. As Richard Holbrooke observed regarding Clinton administration debates: "[Mission creep] was a powerful pejorative, conjuring up images of quagmire. But it was never clearly defined, only invoked, and always in a negative sense, used only to kill someone else’s proposal." The planning staffs within CENTCOM and the Joint Staff are developing numerous operational plans for senior civilian and military officials to debate, and which Obama may ultimately authorize. We know, based upon historical precedent, that military officials are more likely to oppose discrete military operations, and will repeatedly raise warnings about their risks, costs, and relative unimportance compared to "vital national interests." These concerns are then expressed via media leaks or through sympathetic retired general officers, even when they have no direct insights into the operations that are being reviewed. As these statements inevitably come forward the experienced opinions should be respected, but readers should be wary of their situational awareness of Iraq or insights into Oval Office discussions.

A few months ago, I interviewed retired U.S. Army Gen. Peter Schoomaker. He was one of the original 22 members of the 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta, a.k.a. Delta Force, and later commanded every special operations force for which he was eligible. He led one of the three Delta teams used in the failed April 1980 raid to free U.S. hostages in Iran, and many other rescue missions that appropriately have never made the light of day. Schoomaker offered a warning that has resonated with me as I watch events unfold in Syria and Iraq: "Sometimes military force is most effective when it is held in reserve. Once you use it, it takes on a weather of its own."

Mitigating mission creep requires President Obama speaking "clearer than truth" (to borrow Dean Acheson’s phrase) about what U.S. forces in Iraq are doing, and then acknowledging adjustments as that "weather" unfolds. Presidents have a poor record in doing this, including Obama. Yet, given that any strategy to counter the threat that the Islamic State poses to the United States will be longer and costlier than most want to admit, it’s not only essential to the military, he owes it to the American people.

Micah Zenko is the co-author of Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans.

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