When Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced Tuesday that the U.S. would begin “direct action” against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq, it sounded like a new mission for U.S. forces in a country where the president has repeatedly insisted Americans would not be engaged in combat operations.
But America’s special operations forces have been engaging in these kinds of missions for several months, particularly in the Kurdish-controlled provinces in northern Iraq. And the special operations forces have already built up an extensive infrastructure to support these activities. This casts doubt on the official Pentagon statements that last week’s raid was “a unique circumstance.”
Since President Barack Obama authorized the first special operations teams to deploy to Iraq in the summer of 2014, the White House has provided few details on the mission and composition of the forces. The Pentagon today refers to the mission for the 3,500 U.S. service members as primarily “advise and assist,” with an emphasis on training local forces. But the small and highly classified military footprint in northern Iraq shows the U.S. is more involved in the fight against the Islamic State.
According to U.S. and Kurdish officials, the U.S. now runs an operations center in Irbil staffed by a special operations task force whose work is so classified its name is a state secret. The task force has worked in recent months to identify and locate senior leaders of the Islamic State and participated in the mission last Thursday, in which a member of the Army’s Delta Force was killed freeing prisoners from an Islamic State prison in Hawija. (He was the first U.S. soldier killed by enemy fire in the fight against the Islamic State.) These officials asked to speak on background because they were not authorized to disclose sensitive information about U.S. covert activities.
The secret U.S. military presence in northern Iraq doesn’t end there. Highly trained American special operations forces known as Joint Terminal Attack Controllers, who help paint targets for airstrikes of Islamic State vehicles, camps and buildings, also operate in northern Iraq. U.S. officials tell us these controllers also work closely with other Western countries and the Iraqis to avoid collisions and direct air traffic for drones and other aircraft to support the mission against the Islamic State.
Finally, according to these officials, there is a contingent from the Marine Special Operations Command in charge of training Kurdish counter-terrorism forces fighting against the Islamic State.
“We have very good and close cooperation with the United States on military operations, whether that is coordinating airstrikes or the professional forces operation like the one we had last week in Hawija,” the U.S. representative of the Kurdistan Regional Government, Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, told us.
Abdul Rahman added that she generally agreed with the defense secretary’s emphasis on direct action and his promise to authorize more special operations raids in the country. “I think it’s right that we should be nimble and use opportunities that come up in the fight against ISIS,” she said. “This is a joint goal for all us of to defeat ISIS, and we should use the means necessary to do so.”
Senator Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told us Tuesday: “There are things that our special forces are involved in that the public is not always aware of.” He added: “It goes with the territory. It’s the way our government is set up. There are operations that take place. The president as we know can make findings.” Corker, who as chairman of his committee is often briefed on sensitive intelligence and missions for U.S. special operations, told us he was concerned about the extent of the special operations in Iraq. “I don’t think Congress is always even close to fully knowledgeable as to what is happening,” he said.
The Pentagon is also not making public some information about service members wounded in the war against the Islamic State. The Daily Beast reported this week that the Pentagon is not disclosing the identities of five U.S. service members who have been injured in operations against the Islamic State.
The raid on the Islamic State prison by U.S. and Kurdish forces last week, during which Master Sgt. Joshua L. Wheeler was killed, has forced the Obama administration to reveal more information about American troop activities in Iraq. But top officials gave different takes on whether the U.S. troops were engaged in combat in Iraq.
Pentagon officials described the raid as a unique circumstance that was part of the overall “advise and assist” mission in Iraq, and Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook said U.S. troops are not “in an active combat mission in Iraq.” In Congressional testimony Tuesday, Carter said about the raid, “This is combat, and things are complicated.”
Officials are generally careful in characterizing the U.S. role in Iraq because the administration wants to avoid “mission creep,” and most special operations missions are not publicly discussed. The White House proposal for a resolution to authorize the war against the Islamic State contained a prohibition on “enduring offensive ground combat operations.” (Congress never voted on the measure.) White House Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz said Tuesday the U.S. has “no intention of long-term ground combat” in Iraq, despite Carter’s promise that raids similar to the one last week would increase in the months ahead.
When Obama sent troops back to Iraq last year, after withdrawing them in 2011, he promised: “American combat troops are not going to be fighting in Iraq again.”
Now the administration is promising more of the very missions that blur the line between “advising” and fighting. The White House is also reportedly considering embedding U.S. troops closer to the front lines.
None of this is comparable to President George W. Bush’s decision to send whole divisions to fight in Iraq. Obama is not returning to a previous phase of the Iraq war. But with secret missions, the president is nonetheless sending U.S. forces back to fight a war he promised to end. After Thursday’s raid in Hawija, his administration is now acknowledging that.