These Boots Were Made for Fighting

The president is right to be wary of putting troops on the ground in Iraq. But he’s wrong to rule it out.

Erik S. Lesser/Getty Images
Erik S. Lesser/Getty Images

President Barack Obama’s primetime speech last night on his strategy to defeat the Islamic State (IS) was impressive and mainly on target, but it contained a potentially fatal exclusion: the lack of boots on the ground. And it’s not just in Iraq or Syria. Whether it’s the president’s pledge that the campaign to "degrade, and ultimately destroy" IS will "not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil," or NATO stopping short of  "permanently" stationing ground troops on the alliance’s eastern border, or his refusal to keep just a few thousand advisors in Afghanistan after 2016, we are facing an extraordinary phenomenon not seen since the end of the Vietnam War. 

Even in the face of truly dangerous threats to global security and to America’s influence abroad, ground forces are being ruled out. Yes, there are understandable reasons for reluctance, but when juxtaposed with our critical security needs they must be challenged. 

Do we think NATO’s Baltic members can be defended with F-16 patrols alone? Will drones keep Afghanistan safe from the Taliban’s depredations once troops leave? If U.S. airpower and local allies are not enough to take out an IS stronghold, shall we let this existential threat get a pass rather than commit a few U.S. Army battalions to the cause?

Our fear of casualties, and even more of endless "armed nation building" after Iraq and Afghanistan, have melted America’s will to employ what is justly known as "the combat arm of decision." Even President Bill Clinton, who chastened by the debacle in Somalia initially ruled out ground troops in the Balkan conflicts, went on to deploy tens of thousands of soldiers — stabilizing the region for now almost two decades. 

Make no bones about it: America is once again at war in the Middle East. Despite the president’s initial reluctance to assume the mission to "destroy" the rampaging Islamic State, he has been rolled — not just by Joe Biden’s "follow them to the gates of hell" and his other top advisors, but by the reality that this is an enemy that won’t be beaten without serious U.S. intervention. Likewise, 1,000 or so miles to the north in eastern Ukraine, the West is facing Russian troops who will not stop until confronted by American power.

The administration’s response to both, all in all, is deserving of praise.  Obama’s reluctance to rush in with the 82nd Airborne’s guns a blazing is sensible. The downside of deploying ground troops as a first choice would have risked alienating the fragile domestic consensus which the president now has to leverage to act against the Islamic State. After all, fear of a new endless ground troop commitment led the American public to reject last summer’s cruise missile strikes against Syria’s dictator in the wake of chemical warfare against civilians. 

But prudence should not degenerate into the dogma which the president again lapsed in his speech: "As I have said before, these American forces will not have a combat mission — we will not get dragged into another ground war in Iraq." 

We first need to consider why the revulsion against using ground troops is so pervasive; and second, how to use them, if absolute exigency requires U.S. armor and infantry in combat, including against the Islamic State.

Such a commitment would be particularly hard for President Obama. His admonition against new military adventures, as he delineated in his West Point speech this spring, appears mainly targeted at ground campaigns. As an alternative, he has supported drone and manned air strikes, even — as in Iraq now — more than 1,000 Special Forces boots on the ground. In his speech, he made clear that the only combat ground troops would be local forces — the Iraqi army, select Shiite militias, and the Kurdish Peshmerga — who have the most to lose if aggression and horror roll on unchecked. That combination of forces worked in recent weeks in Iraq, ringing up victories against the Islamic State at the Mosul Dam and Amirli. Similar U.S. air campaigns in conjunction with local troops saw success in Libya in 2011, northern Iraq in 1991 and 2003, Afghanistan in 2001, Kosovo in 1999, and Bosnia in 1995.

But sometimes local forces are not enough. U.S. troops have capabilities they cannot approach, beginning with the crucial combat multipliers: "speed" and "decisiveness." The commitment of even a few U.S. troops with actual ground combat missions signals credibility and seriousness. Such a troop presence can integrate rival local forces (as U.S. joint platoons did with the Kurds and Iraqi Army in 2010-2011), prevent friendly atrocities against civilians, and shape the goals of ground combat.

Still, local forces in Iraq and Syria should be the first choice, with commitment of our ground troops only an emergency contingency. Once in combat they introduce entirely new risks beyond those of drones or F-18 strikes, Special Forces trainers, and Navy SEALs. These risks begin with casualties. Ground combat is bloody.  While overall casualty rates are down from Vietnam, thousands have died in each of America’s last two wars, and tens of thousands have suffered serious wounds. 

Second, ground combat is expensive, particularly in primitive situations with iffy local logistics. In Iraq, the cost was about $1 million per soldier per year, with trucked-in life support and thousands of contractors.   

Third is strategic risk. U.S. ground troops in combat — whatever their announced purpose — generate both suspicions of permanent occupation and pressure on neighbors. Moreover, force protection to keep our casualties down often alienates the population we seek to win over. It’s not just our explicit enemies who have a vested interest in American deployments failing. When the United States defeated the North Korean invasion of South Korea, the Truman administration (urged by Gen. Douglas MacArthur) shifted goals to liberate the North, provoking China’s entry. Likewise, in Iraq a half century later, Bush administration officials hinted at what might come after the rapid toppling of Saddam; Iran and Syria responded by supporting insurgencies among the Shiites and Sunnis. And Pakistan acted similarly once NATO forces dug into the conflict in Afghanistan. 

But the fourth risk is the most profound: The sacrifice of our young men and women in combat generates an almost messianic urge for an outcome worthy of them. From Gen. MacArthur’s "no substitute for victory" approach that hurled 300,000 Americans and allies against China to the nation-building dreams in Afghanistan and Iraq, we repeatedly embrace transformational goals to justify the loss of our most precious resource — endeavors that then demand ever more such losses without commensurate success.

But when we are realistic and limit our military goals, ground engagement can achieve decisive results. The first Gulf War shaped the entire post-Cold War world to America’s favor — with roughly 6 percent of the U.S. casualties suffered in Afghanistan and Iraq, and less than 1 percent of Vietnam losses. Ground force deployments or mobilization were positive game changers from Berlin in 1948 and 1962 to the Yom Kippur war in 1973; from the Dominican Republic to Granada; from Panama to Haiti. Certainly Somalia in 1993 and Beirut in 1983 were reverses, but those exceptions underline the rule: Don’t commit ground troops for vague long-term societal transformation.

With roughly 1 million active and reserve U.S. Army and Marine troops, consuming roughly half of our annual 4 percent of GDP devoted to defense, we have the force structure to do the job in Iraq and Syria.

But how can we avoid getting bogged down? For now, Obama has the right idea: if possible, use primarily local troops. But if that doesn’t do the trick and U.S. troops must be used, follow strictly the "Powell Doctrine": Have a clear, attainable military objective; try other means first; ensure international and domestic support; resource the mission; and push to victory.

The world is a more dangerous place than we’ve seen in decades, and as President Obama said last night, "the greatest threats come from the Middle East and North Africa, where radical groups exploit grievances for their own gain." We thus cannot eschew the most decisive non-nuclear element in our arsenal because of ideological blinders or past misuse. The red line should not be the kind of military force we employ, but the importance and attainability of the objective. If it must be achieved with our bayonets rather than by drones or other people’s kids, let’s be honest with the American people, and not promise bloodless conflict, particularly if we then must renege.

James F. Jeffrey is the Philip Solondz distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the former U.S. ambassador to Turkey, Iraq, and Albania.