Since deciding that ISIS isn't the terrorist "jayvee team"--and determining that it does pose a serious threat to our national security--President Obama and members of his administration have been steadfast in one claim: our battle against the insurgent army will not involve "boots on the ground."
Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, General Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he would "recommend deploying United States combat forces against Islamic extremists in specific operations if the current strategy of airstrikes was not successful." As The New York Times observed, Dempsey's scenario "raises the possibility of escalation that President Obama has flatly ruled out."
General Dempsey said that while he was confident in the ability of the coalition of American, European and Middle Eastern governments to stop the Islamic State, he could not completely close the door to eventually asking Mr. Obama to commit ground troops to fight the group, known as ISIS or ISIL.
“My view at this point is that this coalition is the appropriate way forward. I believe that will prove true,” he said. “But if it fails to be true, and if there are threats to the United States, then I of course would go back to the president and make a recommendation that may include the use of U.S. military ground forces.”
But what if that escalation has already begun?
Currently, just over 1,000 American troops are serving in Iraq. Officially, most are assigned to security duties at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, or protecting the city's airport. But others are serving as advisers to the Iraqi Army, or performing specialized medical, maintenance and intelligence tasks.
However, the U.S. military mission doesn't end at the Baghdad city limits. Last month, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told reporters that 260 U.S. special forces personnel are serving as military advisers in northern Iraq, but cautioned it was not a "combat boots on the ground kind of operation."
Yet there are indications that some SOF personnel are in the combat zone. Earlier this month, a reporter for the Daily Beast, Ford Sypher, reported seeing individuals who appeared to be western SOF operators near the strategic Mosul Dam as he attempted to cover the Kurdish advance:
At around 10 a.m., the Peshmerga halted our movement. Fearing that the situation was changing rapidly, we asked the Kurdish security element accompanying us what was happening. “We don’t know,” they said, “we just got information that you cannot move forward.” Repeated calls were met with the same firm statement that we could not move forward.
Stuck out in the open with no clear sense of what was occurring in the battle that required us to be stopped, we made contact with high-level Peshmerga ministries, both in Erbil and on the ground in Zumar. “Yes, we want to let you in, but we can’t,” said one high-level Kurdish government official. “We have visitors, you’ll see them,” he stated. As we tried to decipher his cryptic response our answer came: multiple armored Toyotas swept down the mountain, passing within feet of us. The Toyotas were packed with what appeared to be bearded Western Special Operations Forces. I watched the trucks pass and saw for myself the crews inside them. They didn’t wear any identifying insignia but they were visibly Western and appeared to match all the visual characteristics of American special operations soldiers.
Contacts in the Kurdish intelligence service and Peshmerga leadership confirmed what we saw. “Yes,” one commander replied to our questions. “German and American forces are on the ground here. “They are helping to support us in the attack.”
As the U.K. Daily Mail noted, Mr. Sypher knows quite a bit about special forces and the men who make up those elite units. He is a former Army Ranger who served multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Pentagon has repeatedly denied that any troops are directly involved in the fight against ISIS, but the Daily Beast account clearly contradicts that, and it begs an obvious question: why continue the charade? It doesn't take a military genius to know that American airpower is much more effective when its coordinated from the ground, and it's quite likely that many of the air strikes you see on cable news are being directed by western SOF personnel.
And they may soon have plenty of company. Former NSA and CIA Director General Mike Hayden told Fox News Sunday there could be as many as 5,000 covert boots on the ground in Syria (emphasis ours) by the end of this year, and the first elements of that force are apparently now engaged in northern Iraq.
SOF personnel and CIA covert ops specialists are accustomed to being in places they're not supposed to be, without the public sanction of our political and military leaders. In some cases, that's necessary for operational security and the ultimate success of the mission. But in this case, denials are little more than political cover for an administration that pledged "no more boots on the ground" in Iraq.
So what happens when one of those brave men is wounded or gives their life in a battle purportedly being fought by others? As in the past, such casualties will probably be described as "training accidents" and the truth will dribble out years--or even decades--later.
If our troops are already engaged on the ground in Iraq (and elsewhere) the administration might try something novel: the truth. Developing the support required for a long fight against ISIS means leveling with the American people and telling them it can't be won through airpower alone. We will need boots on the ground for the hard, dirty work of disrupting terrorist networks and killing their fighters--with the full knowledge and support of the nation that sends them in harm's way.
Surely those anonymous men in those armored Toyotas deserve that much.