There are boots on the ground in Iraq.
The deployment of, by one report, 129 soldiers and marines to Northern Iraq is qualitatively different from the initial push of advisors and Joint Operations Center personnel announced in July. Secretary Hagel recently described the situation thusly: “This is not a combat boots on the ground type of operation.” Benjamin Rhodes, the Deputy National Security Advisor, echoed this talking point saying “These 130 personnel are not going to be in a combat role in Iraq.” With V22 Ospreys, US SOF, and air strikes now involved in northern Iraq, these descriptions strain credulity.
Regardless of definition, a functional combat force, however small, is again on the ground in Iraq for the first time since Operation New Dawn ended on 18 December 2011. Its presence and actions are shaping the situation in Iraq’s struggle with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The latest round of the Long War has begun.
This latest engagement with Islamic extremists in the Long War bears some resemblance to the first. On 26 September 2001, Gary Schroen led a team of CIA personnel into Afghanistan to link up with the Northern Alliance and assess its ability to launch a counter-offensive, aided by US airpower, against the Taliban. Later Schroen’s team, codenamed “Jawbreaker” was joined by other assets including Special Forces Operational Detachment Alpha 555 & a campaign began that was the hallmark of Rumsfeld’s new style of warfare: SOF, airstrikes, intelligence, and very few boots on the ground.
Schroen actually was on the verge of retirement when 9/11 happened, and retired shortly afterwards. All the key players of the Northern Alliance campaign have retired, and many of the trigger pullers. Depending on composition, the SOF force in Kurdistan may have some warrant officers or NCOs who were on active duty during 9/11, but it is also conceivable that everyone in that force joined their branch of service after the Northern Alliance offensive (the brass-heavy presence in Baghdad certainly has pre- 9/11 veterans, and their experience is a great thing to have on board).
So a new group of SOF is working with an irregular force (the Kurds) to combat a regional threat (ISIS). The force they work with has been an on-again, off-again ally, sometimes treated well by the US, and sometimes ignored. Once, under Kissinger, they were outright sold out for political expediency. The same could be said of the Northern Alliance. When Schroen’s team arrived in the Panjshir Valley, they found their safe house stashed with bottled water, a remnant of a prior US presence from an “on again” portion of the US’s relationship with the Northern Alliance. I wonder if the SOF operators working with the Peshmerga have found anything similar.
I feel this US team in Kurdistan will acquit themselves well, as their older brothers did in Afghanistan. Indeed, bolstering irregulars, is not new at all. The CIA performed this role many times, including with Hmong tribesmen in Laos. And the OSS Jedburgh agents did the same in occupied France.
Each effort has echoes of the past, and yet in each engagement things must be learned anew. In Afghanistan, Rumsfeld and other observers were convinced that JDAMs, CIA/SOF cooperation, and other factors made that campaign radically different from those that had gone before. The relearning happens, because, despite our military’s experience performing certain tasks “we have not been in Korea for 60 years. We have been in Korea 60 times for one year at a time.”
ISIS’s role, of course, is not new either. While Al Qaeda Central disavowed them, they obviously bear the same lineage as the Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters who fought the Northern Alliance in 2001, and supplied foreign fighter to the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) during OIF. It would be interesting if veterans of both sides of, say, the battle of Shah-i-Kot are about to face off again. This would not be without analog. Scipio Africanus was a young Roman officer during Hannibal’s trouncing of the Roman legions in the battle of Cannae. 14 years later, in charge of a reinvigorated Roman force, Scipio defeated Hannibal on his home turf at the Battle of Zama and brought an end to the Second Punic War.
We are, like the Romans, in a long war, but we are not springing back from a defeat like Cannae, and it is unlikely we will get a decisive battle like Zama anytime soon in Iraq. But our government should be open to the extent practicable about what our military is doing, appreciate the mettle of our warfighters, be they young or old, who have put their boots on the ground in Kurdistan, and we should pray for their safe return.