No Matter What Anyone Says, U.S. Troops Are in Combat in Iraq
Boots are on the ground
by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
An Islamic State roadside bomb killed an American service member Oct. 20 somewhere in Northern Iraq, the Pentagon announced in a statement. The release did not say what unit the individual belonged to, where specifically the attack occurred or whether the incident had anything to do with the Iraqi offensive to recapture the city of Mosul.
Let’s put it simply — U.S. ground troops are dying in Iraq at enemy hands. However, the Pentagon has deliberately avoided describing American activities in Iraq as ground combat.
“As far as saying, you know, we’re going to roll up into this attack [in Mosul], I don’t see that happening,” U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Gary Volesky, in charge of American ground forces in Iraq, told reporters on Oct. 19, 2016. “What we do see is continuing to advise and assist the Iraqis as they go.”
But as this latest death highlights, no matter what Volesky or anyone else says, U.S. troops in Iraq are in combat by any reasonable definition of the word.
U.S. Pres. Barack Obama rushed nearly 300 troops to Baghdad shortly after the Islamic State overran Mosul in June 2014. In more than two years of fighting, the United States has steadily — and often quietly — expanded the size of its force in the country.
Throughout, officials at the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon have repeatedly emphasized there would be no real “boots on the ground” as the mission was “non-combat” in nature. At the very beginning, the Obama administration stressed troops would be mainly protecting American interests, namely the U.S. Embassy and its staff.
“The president is not contemplating the deployment of combat boots on the ground into Iraq or Syria to deal with this situation,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said during a daily briefing on Sept. 8, 2014. “The situation right now is related directly to the protection of American citizens in the region.”
It quickly became apparent that this was not necessarily the whole story.
After militants spilled over the Syrian border into Iraq in June 2014, Baghdad’s forces almost completely collapsed. More than two years on, the Pentagon is still trying to put the Iraq’s military back together.
As the situation deteriorated that summer, the U.S. Army brought in a contingent of AH-64 Apache helicopter gunships and RQ-7 Shadow drones. In October 2014, the choppers blasted Islamic State fighters near Fallujah.
More and more U.S. commandos and regular troops descended into Iraq the following year. The Pentagon insisted the soldiers were to train Baghdad’s troops and police officers, and guarding other advisers who were.
Despite these assurances, by the summer of 2015, and without almost any fanfare, the United States had established an on-the-ground artillery force. Between May and November of that year, Army soldiers lobbed more than 400 artillery rockets at Islamic State positions.
“Sometimes these fires come … from our artillery and our HIMARS systems that we’ve got on the ground here,” Army Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, dropped on reporters as nothing more than a brief aside on Oct. 1, 2015. “There are a lot of different components to this battlefield.”
By January 2016, there were approximately 3,700 American troops in Iraq, along with nearly 8,000 U.S.-employed contractors. And they were getting closer to the front lines.
By the spring, U.S. Marines had established an artillery outpost named Fire Base Bell around 40 miles south of Mosul. The leathernecks, armed with 155-millimeter M-777 howitzers, backed up Iraqi troops and harassed Islamic State militants.
Apparently worried that the idea of a “fire base” acknowledged the troops’ active combat role, the Pentagon renamed it the Kara Soar Counter Fire Complex. Regardless of the reality, the new moniker clearly implied the artillery troops were simply defending themselves and their Iraqi partners.
The obtuse name couldn’t hide the fact that the site was in a war zone close to the front lines. On March 19, 2016, an Islamic State rocket attack on the base killed Marine Corps staff sergeant Louis Cardin.
The next month, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford traveled to Kara Soar to hand out four Purple Hearts to other troops from the same unit in a solemn ceremony. American service members only receive this award after being wounded or killed by an enemy.
Though the Marines ultimately left, it was only because their deployment was temporary. A U.S. Army artillery unit with the same type of 155-millimeter howitzers quickly moved in.
By September 2016, the fire support mission expanded again to include a group of the Army’s tracked, 155-millimeter Paladin howitzers. Without any major announcement, the 1st Armored Division had brought the guns to Al Asad Air Base, more than 100 miles west of Baghdad.
On Sept. 24, 2016, Army Gen. Joseph Votel, the Pentagon’s top officer in the Middle East, visited with these soldiers as they fired shells at Islamic State — seen in the video below.
At the same time, the Pentagon continued to rely on obscure language to describe the fighting — and dying — in Iraq. On May 3, 2016, a U.S. Navy SEAL died near the town of Tall Usquf. According to the official press release, Special Warfare Officer Charles Keating’s death was from “combat related causes” rather than, well, combat.
As of Oct. 20, 2016, the Pentagon has acknowledged in a regularly updated table that 25 American troops and one civilian employee have died in the fight with the Islamic State. However, the U.S. military has only classified three as “killed in action.”
The breadth of American support has only become more obvious since Iraqi army and Kurdish peshmerga troops launched an offensive toward Mosul on Oct. 17, 2016. Official photographs show the M-109A6s came up from Al Asad to join the offensive.
The towed guns at Kara Soar and rocket batteries have no doubt contributed to the battle over the Islamic State’s de facto capital in Iraq. The Apache gunships had already blasted the terrorists and their vehicles in Northern Iraq for five months.
And then there are the Joint Terminal Air Controllers, or JTACs. Embedded with Iraqi and Kurdish forces, these specially trained American troops have called in air strikes, Apaches and artillery support.
Since August 2014, the U.S. Air Force and Navy have launched hundreds of air strikes on the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria. American fliers have jammed the terrorists’ communications, dropped propaganda leaflets and conducted surveillance missions.
“I’ve read in some of the news people think that the JTACs are on the front line,” Maj. Gen. Volesky said during his Oct. 19, 2016 briefing.
“That’s not — not where they are. They’re primarily at the brigade level and controlling some of the air and the strikes there.”
This latest American casualty will inevitably turn out to have been in what the Pentagon considers a rear area, too. But in any other war, the soldiers would have been close enough to the fighting for it to count as combat.