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After months of assurance from President Barack Obama that the United States would not commit combat troops to directly engage with Islamic State forces in Syria and Iraq, the first American soldier was killed last week during a hostage rescue.

Master Sgt. Joshua Wheeler became the first U.S. casualty in what has the potential to become yet another long and frustrating war in the Middle East. He and other commandos participated in a successful raid to free hostages held by the extremists in northern Iraq.

In testimony to Congress, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter acknowledged Wheeler’s was a combat death, and not the last one to expect. “This is combat and things get complicated,” Carter said, adding American soldiers “will be in harm’s way, no question about it.”

And yet the Obama administration is still dancing around what the U.S. commitment will be in this new phase of the mission to defeat the Islamic State, the brutal band of Islamists that controls much of Syria and western Iraq, where it has made slaughter and genocide its calling card.

Obama started the U.S. involvement with inconsistent air strikes and cover for Kurdish and Iraqi forces, among the many groups — some good, most bad — that are engaged with Islamic State. Before coming clean, Carter described the deployment of combat troops as “a continuation of our advise and assist mission.”

That’s how wars get started, and quagmires.

If the United States is going to place, as Carter described, its soldiers “in harm’s way,” it should do so with a clearly constructed and articulated strategy. In other words, it should know what it hopes to accomplish, and how, and then go all-out.

Such precise definition and execution of mission is not Obama’s strength.

Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a member of the Armed Services committee and Republican presidential candidate, called the administration’s efforts in Syria a “half-assed strategy at best,” noting it has strengthened the hand of Syria’s murderous dictator Bashar Assad, he of Obama’s infamous red line.

Half-assed strategies waste American lives.

If Obama intends to fight the Islamic State, he should fight it with the relentless determination to wipe it out with the full force of America’s military, and as efficiently as possible.

This must not be another politically correct war. U.S. forces should not be deployed in numbers inadequate to overwhelm the enemy. Nor should they be leashed, unable to use their full capabilities to protect themselves and destroy the bad guys. They should not have to ask permission before they kill.

We know by now that combat missions that are obsessed with avoiding collateral damage and unintended offense can’t be won.

If this is going to be a real war, one that America is committed to winning, civilians inevitably will be killed. But civilians are already being butchered, and in great numbers. The Islamic State is a rag-tag outfit that drives around with guns mounted on flat-bed trucks. It does not have an air force, or a navy or highly lethal special forces.

America does. And if it is going to send its young men and women to do battle with the Islamic State, it should send them in with a terrible swift sword.

nfinley@detroitnews.com

(313)222-2064

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