The Cable

Defense Secretary “Absolutely Prepared” for More U.S. Ground Combat in Iraq

A day after a U.S. Delta Force soldier is killed in Iraq, Ash Carter says more combat may be on the horizon

TAJI, IRAQ - APRIL 12:  A U.S. Army trainer (L), instructs Iraqi Army recruits at a military base on April 12, 2015 in Taji, Iraq. U.S. forces, currently operating in 5 large bases throught Iraq, are training thousands of Iraqi Army combat troops, trying to rebuild a force they had origninally trained before the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in 2010. Members of the U.S. Army's 5-73 CAV, 3BCT, 82nd Airborne Division are teaching members of the newly-formed 15th Division of the Iraqi Army, as the Iraqi government launches offensives to try to recover territory lost to ISIS last year.  (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
TAJI, IRAQ - APRIL 12: A U.S. Army trainer (L), instructs Iraqi Army recruits at a military base on April 12, 2015 in Taji, Iraq. U.S. forces, currently operating in 5 large bases throught Iraq, are training thousands of Iraqi Army combat troops, trying to rebuild a force they had origninally trained before the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in 2010. Members of the U.S. Army's 5-73 CAV, 3BCT, 82nd Airborne Division are teaching members of the newly-formed 15th Division of the Iraqi Army, as the Iraqi government launches offensives to try to recover territory lost to ISIS last year. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Friday afternoon that he expects U.S. troops will engage in more combat operations in Iraq as opportunities to hit Islamic State fighters present themselves, even at the risk of new American casualties.

“I’m absolutely prepared to do that,” he told reporters at the Pentagon the day after a U.S. Army Delta Force operator was killed in a hostage rescue operation in the town of Hawija, south of Kirkuk. The death of Master Sergeant Joshua Wheeler, 39, was the first American combat death in Iraq since 2011, and comes after months of U.S. officials insisting that American troops would play no role in fighting the Islamic State on the ground.

Speaking of the raid, which included about 30 American special operators along with their Kurdish special forces counterparts, Carter said he expects “we’ll have further opportunities” to conduct targeted ground operations working alongside Iraqi and Kurdish forces.

The defense chief made clear that such missions were risky of the U.S. troops involved. He noted  Friday “Americans are flying thousands of combat missions over Syrian and Iraqi territory” that carries risk to the air crews, and that the U.S. troops on Iraqi bases “will be in harm’s way. There is no question about it.”

The mission highlighted some of the gray areas inherent to President Barack Obama’s repeatedly stated policy of sharply limiting what the 3,500 U.S. troops in Iraq can actually do, in part to reduce the risk of casualties.

Obama and American military officials have repeatedly said that U.S. troops are only on the ground in Iraq to train and advise the Iraqi security forces. Soon after committing U.S. troops to the mission in Iraq last year, for instance, Obama toured the U.S. Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Fla., and told the staff there “the American forces that have been deployed to Iraq do not and will not have a combat mission.”

Over the past two days, Pentagon and military officials have scrambled to explain how a raid that involved direct combat wasn’t a combat mission.

On Thursday, Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said U.S. troops in Iraq were “allowed to defend themselves and also defend partner forces, and to protect against the loss of innocent life and that’s what played out in this particular operation.”

Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland, commander of the U.S. effort in Iraq, echoed Cook, issuing a statement Friday morning that the mission “does not represent a change in our policy.  U.S. forces are not in Iraq on a combat mission and do not have boots on the ground.”

Thursday’s raid was conducted at the request of the Kurdish government after intelligence reports suggested the Islamic State was preparing to execute more than 70 detainees at a militant-run prison. The Kurds thought the prison was holding captured Kurdish troops, but the rescue instead freed about 20 Iraqi soldiers, dozens of local Arab civilians, and six Islamic State fighters who has been accused of being spies.

Pentagon officials have insisted that the Delta troops involved in the firefight were there only in an advisory capacity, and were taking cover near the walled compound when they saw the Kurds begin to take casualties, so they “made a decision to go in and assist,” as one U.S. military official told Foreign Policy. Wheeler was killed in the ensuing firefight.
Photo Credit: John Moore/Getty Images

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