President Barack Obama has pledged repeatedly not to put "combat boots on the ground" in Iraq. But a growing air campaign, combined with an increasingly dire need to address the situation atop Mount Sinjar, means it will be increasingly difficult for him to keep his promise.
The Pentagon confirmed late Wednesday that about 20 U.S. special operations forces had been sent to the mountain to assess the needs of the thousands of Iraqi civilians stranded there. They are part of a group of 130 troops Obama authorized Tuesday to go into Iraq to conduct an assessment of the humanitarian crisis. Those U.S. troops, in turn, join an additional 800 service members the Pentagon has deployed to Iraq since June, bringing the total number of troops the Pentagon has announced publicly up to nearly 1,000.
The special operations forces returned to their base without incident, but their short time on the mountain could be the beginning of a new, dangerous chapter in Obama's reluctant use of the military in Iraq. The humanitarian crisis, in which Iraqi minorities and others have fled their homes to the mountain to escape the brutal advance of the Islamic State (IS), has been growing ever more dire. If a deeper humanitarian operation were to be conducted, it could put U.S. forces at risk of being attacked by the IS fighters ringing the mountain.
That prospect dimmed after Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the special forces assessment completed Wednesday revealed that there were fewer Iraqi civilians stranded atop the mountain than thought and that the humanitarian crisis was not as bad as feared. "Based on this assessment, the interagency has determined that an evacuation mission is far less likely," Hagel said in a statement issued late Wednesday.
But troops conducting a humanitarian mission aren't the only members of the U.S. military who could find themselves in harm's way. As the United States expands its air campaign in northern Iraq -- which included a new round of strikes Wednesday -- the Pentagon will almost certainly need to deploy American "spotters" to help guide precision munitions to their targets. Those forces would operate in areas close to IS positions, leaving them potentially vulnerable to attack.
James Dubik, a retired Army three-star general who commanded the Multi-National Security and Transition Command, responsible for training Iraqi forces, said it's hard to square the administration's words when it comes to defining the U.S. mission there without accepting that U.S. forces are in combat. "Pretty narrow splitting of hairs," he said in an email.
[This story was corrected to include Dubik's accurate title at the time.]
Pentagon officials have taken pains to say the American troops in Iraq are confined to two "Joint Operations Centers," one in Erbil and another in Baghdad, as well as being at the massive U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. Even the small group of U.S. special operations forces who did the assessment on Mount Sinjar are expected to have returned to one of those three locations.
Administration officials have been floating the idea of creating a "humanitarian corridor" to help as many as 40,000 Iraqi civilians stranded on the mountain in recent days. But the new assessment completed Wednesday indicated there were far fewer people stranded. Still, the announcement late Tuesday that the United States would deploy 130 additional troops to scope out the humanitarian crisis brought with it the possibility that U.S. forces could be used to conduct some sort of additional humanitarian mission. That could require American forces to be put near where IS forces are operating.
Each service member in Iraq is armed and receives so-called danger pay, just as American forces operating in any other war zone would. But on Wednesday, Ben Rhodes, deputy national security advisor, insisted that American forces "are not going to be in a combat role" in Iraq.
"This would be a humanitarian effort, again, to get them to a safe space," Rhodes said at a press conference on Martha's Vineyard, where Obama is on a family vacation, about a possible rescue mission. "There are a range of ways for doing that."
But it's the airstrike campaign that could force the United States to expose more American forces to combat. Central Command has announced a number of airstrikes since the bombing campaign to protect Iraqi civilians, guard American personnel, and weaken IS began last Friday. Typically, such airstrikes would require personnel on the ground to "call in" those attacks. That would require U.S. personnel to operate in areas close to those controlled by the militants.
"It would definitely give you a major increase in effectiveness and capability if you had those people positioned there," said Michael Breen, a former Army officer who is now the executive director of the Truman National Security Project and the Center for National Policy. "Given the fact that [IS] is not melting away, I think we're seeing an increasingly difficult conversation."
For the moment, Kurdish Peshmerga fighters are working as spotters for the U.S. air campaign, according to a report in the Daily Beast.
Defense officials insist that the nearly 1,000 U.S. personnel the Pentagon has publicly acknowledged are all located at the centers in Baghdad and Erbil. But additional U.S. personnel, including some U.S. special operations forces personnel, may be collecting intelligence in advance of U.S. airstrikes and passing that information on to headquarters in the region -- in effect "calling in" those airstrikes. Defense officials say that instead of using personnel on the ground, drones and other aircraft are able to be used as what's known as "forward airborne controllers."
The United States has been scrambling to bring other nations on board, not only for the humanitarian mission but also for the one to combat the Islamic State. France said Wednesday that it would begin providing arms to the Kurds, while London and Paris have begun dropping food, water, and other humanitarian goods to the refugees stranded on Mount Sinjar.
Those humanitarian flights, combined with the roughly 100 sorties that the United States is flying over Iraq each day, are leaving Iraq's airspace dangerously crowded. Most of the planes belong to the Pentagon, which is conducting roughly 60 intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, or ISR, flights each day to collect data and video about the movements of militants on the ground as well as to monitor the civilians stuck on the mountain. An additional 40 flights are taking place each day to conduct humanitarian operations, aerial refueling, and airstrikes, a Pentagon official said.
A command center under the umbrella of U.S. Central Command, which has responsibility for the region, is coordinating all of those air operations from Al Udeid Airbase in Qatar, according to a Central Command spokesman. Personnel assigned there are sharing information and planning missions with a U.S.-led Joint Operation Center located in Baghdad, which is in turn sharing the information with Iraqi security forces.
"The presence of U.S. Air Force, U.K. Royal Air Force and French Air Force experts within our Combined Air and Space Operations Center enables these airdrop missions to be deconflicted as they are planned and executed," according to the spokesman.
Meanwhile, the administration's attempt to dodge the boots-on-the-ground tag isn't a surprise, as White House officials process the enormity of the problem and struggle to find ways to keep any large number of American forces out of any rescue or subsequent military operation. Breen, who left the Army in 2006 and believes fighting IS is in the nation's security interests, said the White House is sending dual messages while trying to avoid acknowledging that American military personnel are operating in a war zone.
"Attempting to convey to the American people that this is an operation that is limited in its goals and limited in its scope, unfortunately conveys something to [IS] and others in the region that is not helpful," he said.
Ahmad Al-Rubaye, AFP/Getty Images