State Dep’t Spokesman: Phrase ‘Boots on the Ground’ Has Reporters ‘Wrapped Around the Axle’

Patrick Goodenough | April 26, 2016 | 4:08am EDT
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A State Department spokesman says U.S. troop deployments in Syria and Iraq do not constitute ‘boots on the ground’ in the sense of a conventional ground combat mission. (Photo: U.S. Central Command/Flickr)

( – The administration’s decision to deploy another 250 troops to Syria – where 50 special forces operators have been stationed since late last year – does not constitute “boots on the ground” in the accepted colloquial sense of a conventional ground combat mission, State Department spokesman John Kirby said Monday.

“They are wearing boots and they are on the ground,” Kirby acknowledged during a lengthy exchange with reporters at his daily press briefing. “But that doesn’t mean that they are in large-scale ground combat operations.”

He said the same thing applied to the more than 3,000 U.S. troops deployed in Iraq over the past two years.

“You guys are getting way wrapped around the axle on the phrase, ‘boots on the ground.’ Yes, there’s boots on the ground. We’ve got pilots that have been flying airstrikes since August of 2014. Don’t tell me and don’t tell them or their families that they’re not involved in actual combat over Iraq and Syria.

“But that’s a big difference between that and saying we’re going to involve ourselves in conventional ground troops and ground force operations on the ground, which we have not done and there are no plans to do it,” he said.

A reporter contended that the administration’s “mantra” over many months has been that there would be “no boots on the ground.”

“That is not true,” Kirby said. “I just flatly, absolutely disagree with you.”

“When we talk about ‘boots on the ground’ in the context that you have heard people in the administration speak to,” he said a few moments later, “we are talking about conventional, large-scale ground troops that are designed to actually engage in, plan, coordinate, integrate, and engage in combat operations on the ground as units,” Kirby said.

“We’re not doing that. We’ve never done that in Iraq or in Syria, and we’re not going to do it now.”

The deployment of an additional 250 troops, including special operators, to Syria, he continued, was “very much in keeping with” a core mission from the outset in the fight against Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS/ISIL) – “to help improve the battlefield competency and capability of indigenous ground forces.”

Announcing the new deployment during a speech in Germany Monday, President Obama stressed that the new troops would train and assist local forces as they drive ISIS back, and were “not going to be leading the fight on the ground.”

Kirby, a retired U.S. Navy rear admiral, served previously as Pentagon press secretary.

“Having been in the military,” he said, “there is a big difference between saying ‘No boots on the ground’ – we’ve all recognized since almost the outset we’ve had U.S. troops in Iraq, which are very much on the ground – and the colloquial meaning of the term, which is what many people, when they say, ‘No boots on the ground,’ are referring to, which is large-scale, intentionally combat ground troops engaged in combat operations that they themselves are conducting independently and integrating and coordinating that way.”

“And that’s not happening and that’s not going to happen.”

Kirby also wrangled with reporters over the issue of whether the troops deployed in Iraq and Syria were or were not “in combat.”

“We’ve never said that troops wouldn’t be engaged in combat. Talk to these combat pilots that are flying missions over Iraq and Syria and tell them that they’re not involved in combat,” he said.

Kirby also pointed to U.S. Marine Staff Sgt. Louis F. Cardin, who last month became the first U.S. service member to be killed in an attack launched by ISIS, when the group struck a coalition fire base near Mosul.

“Don’t tell that family that he didn’t die in a combat situation, because he certainly did,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean that we’re involved in some sort of large-scale ground combat operation.”

A special forces soldier was also killed last October during a joint U.S.-Kurdish raid on an ISIS prison.  Master Sgt. Joshua Wheeler became the first American killed in action in Iraq since 2011.

Also See:
Obama in 2013: ‘I Will Not Put American Boots on the Ground in Syria’


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