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Anticipating an Increased U.S. Ground Combat Role against ISIL Based on "Self-Defense"

Robert Chesney
Saturday, October 24, 2015, 3:25 PM

What, precisely, is the role of U.S. ground forces in the conflict with ISIL? In a post earlier this week, I described how the "train and assist" mission permits the presence of U.S. personnel on site when allies go into combat, and how this in turn can lead to direct involvement in those fights.

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What, precisely, is the role of U.S. ground forces in the conflict with ISIL? In a post earlier this week, I described how the "train and assist" mission permits the presence of U.S. personnel on site when allies go into combat, and how this in turn can lead to direct involvement in those fights. Yesterday, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter provided more insight on this point during a press conference:

Q: You just said that you expect there'll be more raids like this in the future. So, could you please explain how more raids fits with no combat troops?

SEC. CARTER: Well, I say we' more raids. Remember...the raid that took down Abu Sayyaf, we have this capability. It is a great American strength. It doesn't represent us assuming a combat role. It represents a continuation of our advise and assist mission. And I said right from the beginning, David, and we mean this -- when we find opportunities to do things that will effectively prosecute the campaign, we're going to do that. And this is an example of a case where we could do something we alone had the capability to do, and I'm absolutely prepared to do that. So one of those categories. And I suspect that we'll have further opportunities in the future, and we would want to avail ourselves of them. Jim?

Q: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. Can you clarify the rules of engagement then? Because it' understanding that the special operations commander on the ground made a decision, when the Kurdish partners came under overwhelming fire, to come to their defense. Entered a...walled compound in the middle of the fire fight. They can do it in self-defense, they can do it when their partners come under fire, as well? If so, how is that not combat? I just wonder if you think the president, the administration's being misleading when he says that U.S. forces are not in combat.

SEC. CARTER: ...[L]et me tell you...what happened in this particular event. ... But everything I know about this incident was that as the compound was being stormed, the plan was not for the U.S. advise and assist and accompanying forces to enter the compound or be involved in the fire fight. However, when a fire fight ensued, this American did what I'm very proud that Americans do in that situation. He ran to the sound of the guns, and he stood up, and...all the indications are it was his actions and that of one of his teammates that protected those who were involved in breaching the compound and made the...the mission successful. So that was an inherent risk that we ask people to assume. Again, it wasn't part of the plan, but it was something that he did. And I'm immensely proud that he did that.

[O]bviously we're very saddened that he...lost his life. But -- you know, nobody should be in any illusions, Jim, that Americans are (sic: not) at risk. Americans are flying combat missions, thousands of combat missions, over Syria and Iraqi territory. There are Americans involved in training and advising Iraqi security forces around the country. We do not have combat formations there the way we had once upon a time in Iraq, or the way we have had in years past in Afghanistan. But we do have people who are in harm's way, and who evidently have shown a willingness to put themselves in harm's way in order to have mission success. And I think that's very commendable.

...Q: Follow up.... Because the administration has taken great pains, the president in various permutations, to say it's not ground combat, it's not a major combat role. I mean, just as you said, it's not the same size as it was during, certainly, the Iraq invasion and occupation. But if you're saying there are going to be more missions like this and if commanders will be commended for making decisions to go into the breach, right, and go into the battle --

SEC. CARTER: They will be -- then they will be in harm's way. There's no question about it. And I don't want anybody to be under any illusions about that.

A Wall Street Journal piece added this characterization, apparently based on statements from unidentified officials (the italics in the last sentence are mine):

U.S. forces are allowed to defend themselves and to shoot when Iraqi forces come under fire. U.S. officials say this provision has long existed, but didn't come into play until this week's raid.

"We can fire in support of our coalition partners," said one military official.

This provision will become critical as Mr. Carter authorizes more such operations in coming weeks and months, U.S. officials said.

It seems, then, that the status quo with respect to the U.S. ground role is as follows:

(1) U.S. ground forces do have something akin to a direct ground combat role in the specific sense that they are permitted to use force (under the veil of self-defense of themselves or of their coalition partners once they come under fire) when present on-site to "assist" Kurdish or Iraqi allies in a combat engagement;

(2) U.S. ground forces also have a direct ground combat role in the sense that they may carry out solo raids from time to time (as in the Abu Sayyaf example); and

(3) U.S. ground forces do not have a ground combat role otherwise (and in particular, we do not have "combat formations" engaging in more-conventional or persistent operations).

The issue to watch going forward, then, is whether we will see an increased operational tempo of raids that emphasize Kurdish (or Iraqi) personnel but also feature not just U.S. air support but also U.S. personnel directly engaged in the fighting under color of the self-defense rationale. If so, will the AUMF issue regains momentum? I doubt that it will, at least so long as the increased U.S. ground combat role grows slowly.

Robert (Bobby) Chesney is the Dean of the University of Texas School of Law, where he also holds the James A. Baker III Chair in the Rule of Law and World Affairs at UT. He is known internationally for his scholarship relating both to cybersecurity and national security. He is a co-founder of Lawfare, the nation’s leading online source for analysis of national security legal issues, and he co-hosts the popular show The National Security Law Podcast.

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