Monday, April 18, 2016

Boots or Sandals: What Combat Means for Politicians

This tweet reminded me of my mistakes and the continued problematic discourse about the anti-Islamic State campaign

The US is having the same discussion as Canada: are we engaged in combat or not?  Yes and no.  Canada more clearly since it no longer has planes dropping bombs, but its trainers are prepared to fire if their bases are attacked.  And they have shot their weapons while underfire as they accompanied folks to the front lines. 

The US?  It is dropping bombs, using artillery (!), and now sending helicopters to provide more direct air support.  Is this combat?

Well, to politicians who try to minimize the mission to the public, it is not.  They are sticking by their commitment not to send conventional forces into sustained combat operations.  The troops in Iraq now are not doing what the troops were doing in Iraq from 2003-2011 or what the troops were doing in Afghanistan from 2001-2014 (for Canada, the relevant timeline is 2002, 2003-2011, as it was only SOF before 2002 and only training after 2011).

Special Operations Forces [SOF] don't count as boots on the ground (what do they wear? Sandals, sneakers?).  Why not? Because:
  1. They are covered in secret sauce so their efforts are not publicized in the same way as conventional forces
  2. Since they are small and elite, they take relative few casualties so the political impact back home is different
  3. They represent a much smaller and far more temporary commitment.  They train and they raid, they don't occupy.  
So, we end up getting stuck in definitional arguments about combat or not combat, including myself, when the focus should be not on the labels but on the efficacy of the current strategy and what is likely to happen next.  Certainly, the US is escalating in Iraq, having gone from doing some killing stuff (bombing, some SOF raids maybe) to doing more killing stuff (arty, helos), but is still short of sending large numbers of troops to engage in sustained conventional combat ops. 

Is this a slippery slope or is there a big barrier to hurdle to get from combat but not combat to combat that is really combat?  I would bet on the latter because of the domestic political stakes--that large numbers of troops in harm's way is a big step from the less risky steps taken thus far.  Bombing and training are chosen precisely because they are less costly from a political standpoint (they also cost less than deploying tens of thousands of soldiers into the field).  They may or may not be the best choices in terms of winning this war.  And that is the question we should be focused on.

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