Tuesday, February 2, 2016

boots on the ground

Nancy Youssef and Shane Harris of the Daily Beast complain that the Pentagon won't say how many U.S. military personnel are now in Iraq. But then they tell us anyway: 4,450 U.S. military personnel plus 7,000 contractors, 1,100 of whom are U.S. citizens.

If there's any lesson from the Vietnam war that military and civilian leaders, along with supporters and opponents of that conflict, agree on, it's Don't Play Numbers Games. Lyndon Johnson lost public trust when he repeatedly denied that he was escalating the war with additional troops and expanded missions. Robert McNamara lost the trust of the military and the American public by emphasizing "body counts" of enemy dead rather than accomplishment of military objectives.

For the most part -- with occasional lapses -- the U.S. military has avoided body counts as metrics for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Civilian officials shouldn't forget that lesson.

The increasingly heavy reliance on contractor personnel in those conflicts, however, tempted American officials to play numbers games by talking only about the military personnel on combat missions. That's an important figure, of course, but shouldn't be the only one revealed.

Now we are in the ridiculous posture of arguing over whether military advisers are "boots on the ground." Of course they are. We should be arguing over what the American forces are doing, and whether their numbers and missions make sense, not whether some arbitrary line has been crossed.

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