- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London.
For the first time since U.S. airstrikes against the Islamic State began some 16 months ago, the U.S. is openly sending in ground combat troops. In an acknowledgement that the fight against the militants has yet to significantly dent the group’s power, Defense Secretary Ash Carter told the House Armed Services Committee Tuesday that the Pentagon would send a “specialized expeditionary targeting force” of elite troops to Iraq with freedom to operate inside Syria as well.
The new teams of U.S. Special Operations forces drawn from elite units like the Navy SEALs “will over time be able to conduct raids, free hostages, gather intelligence, and capture ISIL leaders,” Carter said, using an alternate name for the Islamic State. Carter said that the raids in Iraq will be “focused on defending its borders and building the [Iraqi Security Forces] own capacity. This force will also be in a position to conduct unilateral operations into Syria.”
The defense chief added that the deployment comes “on President [Barack] Obama’s orders and the chairman’s and my advice,” referring to Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Carter didn’t specify how many troops would be deployed, or when.
There was little talk of how the new tactic of sending more Special Operations forces to the region might change the dynamics of the battlefield in the near term, but some analysts see the move as following similar U.S. raiding tactics that ultimately failed to have a lasting effect in several other conflicts over the past decade.
“The United States has employed a raiding strategy in a variety of countries, and the results have been far from encouraging,” said Mark Moyar, visiting scholar at the Foreign Policy Initiative. “During the [George W.] Bush administration, huge numbers of raids failed to prevent the resurgence of the Taliban or the flourishing of Iraqi insurgent groups,” he said, while the Obama administration’s reliance on Special Operations raids in Afghanistan ultimately failed to prevent the Taliban from gaining ground over the past year.
The nighttime raids by the Joint Special Operations Command during the surge in Iraq did, however, knock al Qaeda leadership in Iraq off balance to a significant degree, killing large numbers of militants and allowing the Iraqi security forces to find their footing.
Carter said that the mere presence of U.S. commandos in the region will at the very least have a psychological effect on the enemy. It “puts everyone on notice,” he said. “You don’t know at night who is going to be coming into the window.”
The escalation of the American involvement in the fight against the Islamic State comes after months of the Obama administration insisting that there would be no American “boots on the ground” in Iraq or Syria. But it is also an acknowledgement of the slow erosion of those promises, which was highlighted in late October when a U.S. Army Delta Force operator was killed in northern Iraq in a raid on an Islamic State prison.
The death of Master Sgt. Joshua L. Wheeler, 39, marked the first American combat death in Iraq since the U.S. withdrawal in 2011. There are already about 3,500 U.S. troops on the ground in Iraq training Iraqi troops, and about 50 Special Operations troops are on their way to Syria in the coming weeks to assist Syrian rebels plan missions and pinpoint Islamic State targets. The new deployment will push that total higher, but no numbers have been provided yet.
Photo credit: U.S. Marine Corps