Obama Says No U.S. Ground War Against ISIS But 'Mission Creep' Looms



President Barack Obama speaks at U.S. Central Command in Tampa Bay, Florida on Sept. 17.
President Barack Obama reiterated Wednesday that the U.S. is not about to get enmeshed in a ground war in Iraq and Syria.
“America can make a decisive difference, but I want to be clear: the American forces deployed to Iraq do not — and will not — have a combat mission," Obama told troops at U.S. Central Command in Tampa Bay, 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 that may be a truth with modifications. For one thing, there are already 1,600 Americans on the ground in Iraq. While not there to conduct offensive missions against the Islamic State, the Americans are authorized to use force if attacked.
And not all military officials have taken the stance that ground forces are out of the question. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, this week testified before the Senate Armed Forces Committee that if the current plan to battle ISIS fails, he could "go back to the president and make a recommendation that may include the use of U.S. military ground forces.”
Dempsey

U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, speaks during a meeting with Vietnamese Chief of General Staff of the Army, Lt. Gen. Do Ba Ty, in Hanoi, Vietnam on Aug. 14.
IMAGE: TRAN VAN MINH/ASSOCIATED PRESS
So how to reconcile what Obama has said with Dempsey's testimony? They're not actually that far apart, observers say.
"I do think that the president will not allow a large number of troops to be engaged unless something truly catastrophic happened on the ground," Michael Noonan, an Iraq war veteran and tnational security program director at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, toldMash. "The whole notion of 'no boots on the ground' really seems to mean that there will be no large-scale conventional U.S. ground troops involved in the conflict."
U.S. officials may authorize a small number of troops to help coordinate airstrikes or plan assaults with Iraqi forces who are close to the front line, Nicholas Heras, a Middle East researcher at the Center for a New American Security, said. “At this point in time, it’s unclear whether the Iraqi military is able to work with the Kurdish peshmerga...to take the offensive."
Kurdish soldier

A Kurdish peshmerga fighter patrols near the Mosul Dam at the town of Chamibarakat outside Mosul, Iraq on Aug. 17.
IMAGE: KHALID MOHAMMED/ASSOCIATED PRESS
As U.S. airstrikes against ISIS continue, the extremists may retreat to cities with a large number of civilians. In that case, Heras said, the U.S. would have to rely on Iraqi forces, Kurdish troops and others to build ties with locals to help root out the radicals. And if that fails, the U.S. will have to come up with other options.
And then there are other scenarios, harder to predict. Americans on the ground could be captured or American planes might be shot down. In an event such as either of those, the U.S. mission would likely expand.
In his speech on Wednesday, Obama emphasized that the battle against ISIS "will not be America's fight alone." But he also made it clear that the U.S. mission could last for an indefinite period of time.
"If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven," Obama said. "We will find you eventually.”




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