When Boots on the Ground Aren't 'Boots on the Ground' in Iraq

PHOTO: US military observers look on as Iraqi soldiers attend training at the Besmaya military base Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images
United States military observers look on as Iraqi soldiers attend training at the Besmaya military base in southern Baghdad, April 24, 2012.

President Obama’s strategy to “degrade and destroyISIS comes with an additional 475 American troops gearing up to go to Iraq, bringing the total number of U.S. service members there to over 1,600 – but don’t call those “boots on the ground.”

Like the hundreds of American soldiers already in Iraq, the new crop has not been assigned to any combat duties, the military says, and Thursday that’s how the White House told ABC News it defines “boots on the ground” in this context: “U.S. military service members serving in combat roles.”

Last year after a Syrian chemical attack, Obama proposed action but promised no American “boots on the ground” there, a policy White House spokesperson Josh Earnest reiterated for Iraq last month. In his address to the nation Wednesday night, Obama didn’t use the phrase, but emphasized the new American forces “will not have a combat mission.” Thursday Secretary of State John Kerry told ABC News the U.S. is not at war with ISIS.

While the hundreds of Americans in the Middle Eastern nation serve in support and advisory roles to Iraqi and Kurdish ground forces, already American airmen and soldiers have directly engaged and killed ISIS fighters, both in Iraq and Syria. But the men and women who pulled the trigger in those cases don’t fit the bill for “boots on the ground,” according to White House National Security Council spokesperson Caitlin Hayden.

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PHOTO: This undated file image posted on a militant website on Jan. 14, 2014, shows fighters from the al Qaida-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) marching in Raqqa, Syria. Militant website/AP Photo
This undated file image posted on a militant website on Jan. 14, 2014, shows fighters from the al Qaida-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) marching in Raqqa, Syria.

In Iraq, the U.S. has launched more than 150 airstrikes against ISIS targets and released footage of successful strikes. Some bombs are dropped by American fighter pilots in F/A-18s operating off the USS George HW Bush in the Persian Gulf. But as Hayden pointed out, since they’re flying over their Iraqi targets, the fighter pilots are “in the air,” not on the ground. Military officials said Thursday it plans to begin using “manned and armed” aircraft taking off from Erbil in northern Iraq, but hasn’t decided on which aircraft to use.

In Syria, the U.S. executed a complex rescue operation in July involving several dozen commandoes to save American hostages held by ISIS near its stronghold in Raqqah, senior U.S. officials told ABC News last month. The American commandoes flew in by helicopter, disembarked and managed to sneak to the location they believed to hostages to be, but found none there. A firefight ensued in which officials said the American forces killed several ISIS fighters, while only suffering a single minor injury in return. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel later said that other than there being no hostages around, from a military standpoint, the mission was “flawless.” It was also, according to the White House, exempt from the broader policy of not using boots on the ground.

“Again, we are not contemplating U.S. boots on the ground in Syria as part of a broader U.S. strategy against ISIL [ISIS],” Hayden said in an email. “That operation was a limited circumstance that was not related to our strategy against ISIL. It was about personnel recovery and we never rule out using our military in those circumstances anywhere in the world.”

Hayden declined to say whether such a special operation would be launched to kill or capture ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a potential echo of the Navy SEAL mission that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in May 2011. A Pentagon spokesperson also declined to comment on the “hypothetical.” Late Thursday The Washington Post reported President Obama had given the U.S. military permission to specifically target al-Baghdadi and other high level ISIS figures.

Richard Clarke, a former counter-terrorism advisor to the White House and now ABC News consultant, said that when administration officials say “boots on the ground,” they probably mean larger organized combat units like infantry battalions, and said Obama’s phrasing Wednesday night was a “better formulation.”

Or, as the President put it June 19: "I think we always have to guard against mission creep, so let me repeat what I’ve said in the past: American combat troops are not going to be fighting in Iraq again."

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