Ebola, ISIS and “boots on the ground”
Last week, the question on everyone’s minds during President Barack Obama’s ISIS address was whether or not the president would authorize “boots on the ground.”
For all the experts and pundits on cable news, however, no one bothered to mention a basic fact in their subsequent analysis: Despite the popularity of the phrase, “boots on the ground” is a meaningless metric by which to evaluate the U.S. response to any threat.
The fact of the matter is that there are already U.S. boots on the ground in countries all over the world, including almost 2,000 of our service members in Iraq. As a measure of capabilities, the phrase provides no valuable measurement of what force the U.S. can bring to bear against ISIS. As a measure of risk, it provides no evaluation of the possibility of U.S. forces being killed, wounded or captured by enemy forces in the conduct of their duties. And as a measure of commitment, the U.S. strategy outlined by the president is far more useful in understanding how the U.S. is going to fight ISIS.
Fundamentally, “combat boots on the ground” is also a misnomer.
The idea that the soldiers, airmen, Marines, and special-forces of all branches are not combat troops is laughable. Even when they are not actively fighting on the front lines, they are combat troops and they are certainly on the ground. To attempt to define them as anything else is both misleading and disguises the nature of what they do; they exist to destroy the enemies of the United States.
Instead of focusing on boots on the ground as a measurement of U.S. involvement, a better measurement is to identify just how and why our forces are going to be employed. What are their tasks, and how do those tasks further the mission for which they are there? What is the intent of their commander? And what will the desired end-state look like?
For example, consider the 3,000 troops deployed to Liberia. Obama’s intent is to use the U.S. military’s unique capabilities to improve the effectiveness of the global response.
By building treatment centers, training healthcare workers, and establishing a military control center for coordination (discrete tasks), they will further the mission to contain and combat the spread of the Ebola virus. The desired end-state will be to not only minimize civilian casualties but also to build capacity within Liberia so that Liberian authorities are capable of caring for their own population.
By contrast, our 2,000 troops in Iraq are doing very different work. The mission to “degrade and destroy” ISIS is served by assisting Kurdish and Iraqi forces in planning, training, and logistics, coordinating air strikes, and gathering and sharing intelligence.
The president intends to support our allies like the Kurds, protect minorities like the Yazidi under threat of extermination and prevent a terrorist safe haven from being established in the region. A unified, inclusive, and representative Iraq that can set aside sectarian cleavages to hunt down this existential threat is the ultimate end state.
It is time to remove the phrase “boots on the ground” from our national dialogue and instead focus on facts, mission, tasks, intent, and end-state. If we cannot clearly articulate these concepts, then we don’t truly understand what we are doing there. Anything less promotes a fundamental misunderstanding of our service member’s role in the region and does a disservice to our combat troops in harm’s way.
Adam Tiffen is a co-founder of Tri-Star Collaborative, a firm specializing in sustainable development in emerging markets and post-conflict environments. He is a member of the Truman National Security Project’s Defense Council and a veteran of three tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.