Since Dec. 21, seven American service members have died in Afghanistan—most recently a week ago when Sgt. Matthew McClintock was killed in a firefight with the Taliban. But according to the White House, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have “ended.”
“The U.S. ended two costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Ned Price, spokesman for the National Security Council, tweeted Tuesday afternoon, in the run-up to Tuesday’s State of the Union.
It’s a statement that drew the immediate ire of many within the Pentagon. But it wasn’t a slip by Price. Rather, it was a purposeful message that the White House has pushed the Pentagon to adopt for months—with limited success.
Upon hearing about Price’s tweet, several defense officials just shook their heads. More than one told The Daily Beast: “I am not surprised.”
During tonight’s State of the Union, the president is expected to declare that U.S. combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan are over. Even as Sgt. McClintock was killed during an hours-long firefight in southern Afghanistan; even as Master Sgt. Joshua Wheeler was shot in the neck Oct. 22 while battling ISIS fighters at a facility under in northern Iraq; even after six troops died Dec. 21 when a suicide bomber on a motorcycle attacked them just a few miles outside their base near Kabul.
The White House believes the wars are over for the U.S. military because there are no longer tens of thousands of troops leading the fighting against extremist elements. But even those in the Pentagon tasked with repeating the White House message have struggled to stick to this narrow definition of combat.
In the days after Master Sgt. Wheeler’s death, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter first refused to call Wheeler’s death a combat loss, saying the military was engaged in “combat formations before conceding minutes later that “this is combat.” His spokesman, Peter Cook, has oscillated on this issue.
An Army spokesman stationed in Iraq refused to dance around this issue because he, unlike those before him, knows what war looks like.
“Of course, this is a combat zone. There’s a war going on in Iraq, if folks haven’t noticed. And we’re here and it’s all around us. It’s a dangerous place, you know, we’ve had a man killed, we’ve had men—personnel wounded. That’s going to continue to happen, and we continue to give out combat patches, we continue to collect imminent danger pay,” said Army Col. Steve Warren, shortly after Wheeler’s death, from Baghdad.
The White House argues that U.S. troops can be in combat—but not in a combat mission. Sgt. McClintock, for example, was part of a training mission that unexpectedly (in a Taliban-dominated area no less) found himself in a combat mission for which he paid for with his life.
Combat, in other words, is something one can turn on and off like a switch, according to the White House view.
A White House official reached by The Daily Beast who did not want to be identified but was personally familiar with Price’s tweet, said the U.S. “is not exclusively in a combat role because U.S. forces are not in large number leading the fight.”
“These are not offensive ground operations that [U.S. forces] are doing by themselves,” the official explained to The Daily Beast. “Occasionally [U.S. forces] find themselves in a combat mission.”
For many in the military, it is a distinction without a difference. And it insults those who have fought—and died—for the nation. Those who serve say that is an easy thing to say from the comforts of Washington.
This State of the Union, the president’s last, will be as much about the nation today as its evolution over the past eight years. And chief among the foreign policy successes for the Obama administration is ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. withdrew its troops from Iraq at the end of the 2011 and is scheduled to draw down the bulk of its troops in Afghanistan this year.
On its web page, the White House boasts it “responsibly ended the U.S. combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, bringing home some 90 percent of the nearly 180,000 American troops deployed in those countries when President Obama took office.”
But in the last year, more than 3,000 troops returned to Iraq, and a resurgent Taliban is battling to reclaim territory in Afghanistan. The U.S. has spent an average of $111 million a day for the past 495 days on the wars in Iraq and Syria. And the fiscal year 2015 budget allotted $58 billion for Afghanistan.
The U.S. military’s frustration with the White House push to redefine combat has been bubbling long before Price’s tweet. On Tuesday, before Price posted his tweet, a retired Army colonel wrote about the increased focus on language over results.
“Today, with that ratio [of Americans serving the military] at less than one percent, military illiteracy has inevitably worsened with each succeeding generation. In contrast, our movies and professional sports have become more violent while the political dialogue about our worsening security problems appears to have been plagiarized from a screenplay of Wag the Dog,” Ret. Army Col. Ken Allard wrote. “It’s the narrative, not reality, stupid.”