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World

U.S. Mission In Iraq Called Into Question After Death Of Service Member

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The American troops in Iraq are not supposed to be fighting and dying. They're supposed to be advised and assisting. President Obama vowed the U.S. would not have a combat role when he sent American forces back into Iraq to fight ISIS.

Last week, Senator Dan Sullivan of Alaska pressed the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joe Dunford, about whether that is in fact the case.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DAN SULLIVAN: General Dunford, on March 19, there was a Marine Corps staff sergeant, part of BLT 2/6 artillery - Marine who was killed in Iraq. Was he killed in action?

GENERAL GENERAL DUNFORD: He was killed in combat, Senator.

SULLIVAN: How about when our F-22s, F-16s, A-10s are doing bombing missions in Iraq and Syria? Are they conducting combat missions?

DUNFORD: They are, Senator.

SIEGEL: Well, Fred Kaplan of Slate wrote about the American mission in Iraq recently, and he joins us to talk about it now. Welcome to the program.

FRED KAPLAN: Thank you.

SIEGEL: The Obama administration uses the phrase advise and assist to describe the American job in Iraq now. We heard that exchange about how to described it. How do you characterize it?

KAPLAN: Well, that's always been a very loose term. You might remember the initial soldiers who were in Vietnam were also called advisers. I think what we're seeing here is a pretty classic case of mission creep. You recalled at the beginning, President Obama said that the basic strategy was to defeat and destroy ISIS. Now, the original idea for that would be that he would help assemble a coalition of Arab Muslim, mainly Sunni armies and militias to do the fighting on the ground while we would support with air power, intelligence, logistics.

But it turned out there was no such coalition to be had because all of the natural foes of ISIS feared and loathed each other at least as much as they feared and loathed ISIS. But it was still the mission to defeat and destroy ISIS, so we became more and more involved. And the climax of this came a couple of weeks ago when Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said that our troops or our advisers would now be embedded with Iraqi forces on a battalion level.

SIEGEL: Meaning that they are engaged in combat.

KAPLAN: Right there in combat - and that the air support would not only be airplanes dropping smart bombs from 10,000 feet but Apache helicopters strafing from within the range of surface-to-air missiles and even artillery.

SIEGEL: There are now about 5,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. Do you see that number escalating substantially given the reality on the ground?

KAPLAN: I think for the next nine months, as long as President Obama is still in the White House, probably not. But he has articulated the logic and put in place the first steps of a policy that would allow his successor, whoever he or she is, to escalate considerably and still rationalize that he or she is just carrying forth President Obama's policies.

SIEGEL: Would you expect to see more U.S. casualties in Iraq if they're playing such an upfront role?

KAPLAN: I think it's almost inevitable. And then, you know, let's say that we go into Mosul with the local forces, and there's a stalemate, or maybe even the local forces are about to be defeated.

Would even President Obama with his deep reluctance - it's been called almost an allergy to uncontrolled escalation - refuse a recommendation to send in another two or three or four combat brigades and to get even more involved? We've seen this movie many times before, and you don't need to see it again to predict what the outcome is going to be.

SIEGEL: Fred Kaplan, thanks for talking with us.

KAPLAN: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Fred Kaplan writes Slate's "War Stories" column. He's also the author of "Dark Territory: The Secret History of Cyber War." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.