"The U.S. military's involvement is not over. President Obama has been very clear on this point," Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel told a press conference yesterday. "Our objectives remain clear and limited—to protect American citizens and facilities, to provide assistance to Iraqi forces as they confront ISIL, and to join with international partners to address the humanitarian crisis."
His comments came during a little confab meant to tout U.S. accomplishments in Iraq against ISIL, especially after the Islamic militant organization doubled down on atrocities against the local population with the murder of American journalist James Foley. Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin E. Dempsey talked up successes, but warned that ISIL is very bad indeed (not a point that's really in question). And they said there's a bigger U.S. role to come.
So…What kind of military involvement are we talking about?
"The defeat of ISIL is not only going to come at the hands of airstrikes," Hagel insisted later in response to a question about long-term strategy. He added, "strategically, there are limits to how much you can accomplish with airstrikes."
That makes a certain sense. Dropping bombs and shooting missiles may blow the hell out of targets, but it doesn't take territory or fortify strongholds. If you plan the "defeat of ISIL" you need somebody on the ground to dig in, shoot, and get shot at. That is, you need to send in troops.
If those are American troops, this slightly contradicts the president's comments of August 14, when he insisted "we can carry out effective missions like the one we carried out on Mount Sinjar without committing combat troops on the ground."
But then, nobody really thought the next U.S. government-sponsored tour of this particular garden spot would be confined to a view from the air, did they?
But will they be American troops? Said General Dempsey:
when you ask me if the American people should steel themselves for this long conflict, there will—there will be required participation in the—of the United States of America, and particularly in a leadership role, to build coalitions, to provide the unique capabilities that we provide, but not necessarily all the capabilities, to work through this thing using three different military tools.
One is direct action. There will be cases where we are personally threatened, U.S. persons and facilities are threatened, that we will use direct action. If told to use direct action for other purposes, we'll be prepared to do so. Haven't been asked.
The second one is building partner capacity. And that's—that's really where this has to reside. We've got to have them take ownership of this, because, frankly, if we own it, they're not going to be that interested in it.
And then the last one, of course, is enabling, which is to say enabling our partners, which is what you see us doing somewhat now in Iraq with both the Iraqi security forces and the Peshmerga, and I think you'll see that enabling function used, as well.
My guess is that we're being softened up for round three in Iraq.