The recent call from U.S. officials for increased American joint and unilateral special operations in the fight against Islamic State militants has drawn concern that what the Defense Department calls “training and assisting” in the Middle East is starting to look a lot more like combat.
Video of a recent hostage rescue in Iraq showed just how close U.S. soldiers were to dangerous Islamic State attacks. U.S. soldiers were side by side wtih Kurdish forces behind enemy lines, with one American soldier killed by ISIS fire.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter and other Pentagon officials called this week for more such raids.
“We are not satisfied or complacent about where we are, and we won’t be satisfied until ISIL is defeated,” said Joint Chiefs Chairman General Joseph Dunford, using a common acronym for Islamic State forces.
But is this ramped-up raid plan mission creep?
Daniel Serwer, a senior fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, said "it might be a creep or a mission crawl, but it’s not a complete change.”
Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow specializing in defense and foreign policy issues at the Brookings Institution, said, "There are times where you need to escalate — for example, if you’re losing or not winning. And provided that the escalation has been debated, well-conceived and fully understood, then it may sometimes be the right answer.”
Those on the ground say current operations in Iraq are nothing like the major U.S. combat missions of earlier wars there.
“Major concentrations of U.S. forces actively conducting patrolling, actively conducting attacks against specific enemy known locations in order to gain, seize and hold territory ... it’s not any of that,” said Army Colonel Steve Warren, spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq.
Carter said the debate over whether the U.S. is overstepping its mission with “combat boots on the ground” is confusing specific actions with American troops’ overall role.
“I think to the extent there’s a distinction turning around the word 'combat' is not between a particular operation but between a mission," he said, "and the overall mission of U.S. forces in Iraq is to enable by equipping, training, advising, assisting capable and motivated local forces.”