By THE EDITORIAL BOARD MARCH 30, 2016
With the military campaign against the Islamic State making some progress, American officials have begun to sharpen plans to expel the terrorist organization from two major cities it still controls.
Recapturing Raqqa, in northern Syria, and Mosul, in northern Iraq, from the Islamic State is critical. But President Obama has not made the case for expanding America’s role in the fighting, nor has he given a forthright assessment of the resources that would be required.
Since Mr. Obama authorized the first airstrikes in Iraq and Syria in 2014 to curb the rise of the Islamic State, administration officials have been vague and at times disingenuous about the evolution of a military campaign that has escalated sharply.
White House officials initially pledged not to commit ground troops to the effort. They later deployed small teams on the ground, which have been conducting raids in Iraq and Syria. After a Marine was killed in a rocket attack in northern Iraq, Pentagon officials last week said American troops were deployed in a previously undisclosed remote base and conducting artillery strikes.
Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, sought to portray the artillery battery that came under attack as analogous to air power. “This is no different than aviation fires we’ve been delivering,” he told reporters last week at the Pentagon. “This happens to be surface fires.”
The two are, in fact, different, and they expose troops to different degrees of risk.
The Pentagon has refused in recent days to disclose how many American troops are deployed in Iraq. Last year Mr. Obama set a cap of 3,870 American troops, but the Defense Department has been exceeding it by not counting service members on short temporary assignments and those who overlap for a short period with units that are being replaced.
The White House last week provided a synopsis of the next steps in the campaign against the Islamic State in a seven-page report to Congress. It says that the group has not had a major military victory since May and that American warplanes have significantly cut its revenue by bombing oil trucks and other targets.
The report says the American military will “intensify airstrikes and raids,” continue to advise Iraqi and Kurdish troops and “increase training of local police and volunteer forces.” It does not acknowledge that a far larger number of ground troops would be needed to do that.
Mr. Obama needs to be straightforward about deploying more troops. “It has not been transparent for the public,” Representative Mac Thornberry, the Texas Republican who leads the House Armed Services Committee, said in an interview, referring to the evolution of the military campaign. “My view is that the president jumps through hoops because of his views of this politically.”
Mr. Obama has not made a clear argument that giving the Pentagon freer rein can lead to greater success against ISIS. It seems inevitable that the next president will be dealing with this fight. Mr. Obama would do his successor a favor by being frank with the American people about the struggle and choices ahead.