Former Obama Defense Secretary Bob Gates accused the White House of engaging in political “backflips” to avoid describing U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria as engaged in a combat mission.
Hours later, President Obama’s spokesman performed more verbal gymnastics on the subject, saying troops are sometimes in a combat “situation” but not a combat mission.
Mr. Gates, a Republican who served as Mr. Obama’s first Defense secretary from 2009 to 2011, said it’s a “disservice” that the White House can’t bring itself to say that U.S. troops are in combat against the Islamic State.
“I think that it is incredibly unfortunate not to speak openly about what’s going on,” Mr. Gates said on MSNBC. “American troops are in action, they are being killed, they are in combat. And these semantic backflips to avoid using the term combat is a disservice to those who are out there putting their lives on the line.”
The White House, which is fully invested in Mr. Obama’s legacy as the president who ended the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, seemingly proved Mr. Gates’ point soon after he made his comments. White House press secretary Josh Earnest said that the 5,500 or more U.S. troops deployed in Syria and Iraq are often in danger, but were not sent there as ground combat troops on the scale of the Bush administration’s 2003 invasion.
“While their presence in Iraq and in Syria is dangerous, and on occasion, our men and women in uniform have found themselves in combat situations that are dangerous, they have not been deployed to Iraq to wage combat on the ground against” the Islamic State, Mr. Earnest said.
Of the U.S. Special Forces who have been sent to Syria, Mr. Earnest said, “Obviously that is a combat situation. But that is very different than the decision that was made by President Bush to deploy more than a hundred thousand U.S. forces on the ground in a sustained combat role where their principal responsibility was to seek out and engage the military … I’m sorry. Seek out and engage the adversary in combat.”
Said Mr. Gates, “I have a feeling it’s got everything to do with the politics of … ‘we’ve ended combat operations in Iraq, it’s over, we’re done, we’re out of there.’”
Six U.S. troops have been killed in Iraq this year, equaling the total of 2015. During the bloodiest years of the Iraq war, U.S. military deaths reached more than 800 per year.
U.S. commanders believe that a recent wave of bombings in Iraq may signal a shift in tactics by the Islamic State, determined to rebound from a series of battlefield losses and hoping that attacks in the capital will distract already divided Iraqi leaders. Army Gen. Joseph Votel, commander of U.S. Central Command, said “there is a little concern” that political unrest in Baghdad, which has left the Iraqi parliament in limbo for weeks, might be a hindrance to further Iraqi military progress and could divert Iraq’s focus from objectives like retaking Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city.
“They are looking for ways to start to regain their momentum or regain the initiative,” he told reporters flying with him to Kuwait, the first stop on a Middle East tour. Gen. Votel said the suicide bombings and other attacks in and around Baghdad over the past week, killing more than 200 civilians, show how rapidly momentum and tactics can change. The latest, on Tuesday, struck outdoor markets and a restaurant in Baghdad, killing at least 69 people.
Mr. Gates’ assessment of White House political spin on military matters is not the first time Mr. Obama has come under fire from his own defense chiefs. In 2014, former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, a Democrat, said Mr. Obama “kind of lost his way” in Iraq.
By not pressuring the Iraqi government to leave more U.S. troops in the country in 2011, Mr. Panetta said, the president “created a vacuum in terms of the ability of that country to better protect itself, and it’s out of that vacuum that ISIS began to breed,” using an acronym for the extremist group also known as ISIL.
The administration sought to portray momentum Thursday in the U.S.-led coalition’s fight against the Islamic State, saying the extremists now have lost an estimated 45 percent of the territory they controlled in Iraq and 20 percent of their territory in Syria, up slightly from previous estimates.
The Pentagon said coalition forces have killed more than 120 high-value leaders in the terrorist network, including planners and recruiters. And the coalition has trained more than 30,000 Iraqi security forces, with another 5,000 in training — the highest number yet in training.
⦁ This article is based in part on wire-service reports.