President Obama’s undeclared but escalating war against the Islamic State terror group suffered its third American combat casualty on Tuesday, as the White House wrestled with renewed questions about the likely scope and duration of the conflict.
Obama has promised that U.S. forces will not carry out “enduring offensive ground combat operations.” But he has also ordered some 5,000 troops to Iraq and plunged up to 500 elite special operators into Syria to help rebel groups battle both troops loyal to strongman Bashar Assad and extremists serving under the black flag of ISIS, as the terrorist army is also known.
The casualty, a U.S. Navy SEAL, was killed in northern Iraq after ISIS fighters breached lines held by Kurdish peshmerga forces.
“It is a combat death, of course, and very sad loss,” Defense Secretary Ash Carter told reporters.
At the White House, press secretary Josh Earnest tried to explain how an American who was not on a combat mission could be killed in combat.
“He was killed, and he was killed in combat. But that was not part of his mission,” Earnest told reporters. “His mission was specifically to offer advice and assistance to those Iraqi forces that were fighting for their own country.”
But Earnest denied playing down the threats facing Americans on the ground, stressing, “I don’t mean to make it sound benign, because it’s not. It’s dangerous.”
Asked by Yahoo News at what point the U.S. deployment in Syria would become an “enduring offensive ground combat operation,” Earnest suggested that American troops could remain there indefinitely without ever passing the “enduring” mark as long as their numbers remain short of the tens of thousands used in the March 2003 invasion of Iraq.
U.S. commandos in Syria have “a very different mission than the deployment of thousands of U.S. troops on the ground, who are responsible for seeking out and directly engaging the enemy,” he said. “That is not the mission of the much smaller number of forces on the ground.”
Pressed on whether there was a time element to an “enduring” deployment, Earnest replied, “I think the reference to enduring is a reference to the idea of an enduring presence on the ground building a base, a large physical presence on the ground. So that’s why I do think this notion of the time commitment and the number of troops involved are not unrelated.”
Obama’s proposed Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) against the Islamic State — legislation that would function as a kind of declaration of war — would not permit “enduring offensive ground combat operations.”
Senior Obama aides have taken pains not to define the phrase precisely. Earnest himself said in February 2015 that the language was “intentionally” fuzzy.
“We believe it’s important that there aren’t overly burdensome constraints that are placed on the commander in chief, who needs the flexibility to be able to respond to contingencies that emerge in a chaotic military conflict like this,” he told reporters at the time.
Secretary of State John Kerry told the Senate Appropriations Committee in February 2015 that “if you’re going in for weeks and weeks of combat, that’s enduring.” But he, too, said that the language meant only to suggest that Obama would not trap the United States in another conflict like Afghanistan or former President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq.
Many Democrats say the legislation is not restrictive enough for them to support, that they worry about signing off on the kind of large-scale ground deployment that Obama has essentially ruled out. Republicans say it’s too restrictive, that the measure’s three-year sunset binds the hands of the next president, and that the language on ground forces could inhibit a future commander in chief.
But get past the policy, and politics loom large. Democrats have been mindful that a vote for war can come back to hurt them — with then New York Sen. Hillary Clinton’s 2002 vote authorizing Bush to invade Iraq perhaps the best example. That vote dogged Clinton throughout her unsuccessful 2008 bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Republicans could modify Obama’s AUMF to their liking, such as by stripping out the ground forces restriction, vague as it is, and scrapping the three-year limit. But GOP aides say their leaders in Congress worry about taking any step that might make them share the responsibility for a military strategy that will be executed by Obama, at least for another eight months or so.