The concern regarding this soldier’s death focuses on whether the U.S. is committing combat troops in Iraq following President Obama’s statements to the contrary after the 2011 pull-out of all U.S. forces. Currently, U.S. troops are serving in a “train, advise, and assist” capacity in bases across Iraq, aiding both Iraqi and Kurdish soldiers in the fight against the Islamic State group.
Does last week’s event violate President Obama’s promise not to commit combat troops? In short, not necessarily. President Obama framed the operations in Iraq and Syria against IS in his September 2014 speech under the guise of counterterrorism akin to what the U.S. has conducted in Yemen and Somalia:
"But I want the American people to understand how this effort will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil. This counterterrorism campaign will be waged through a steady, relentless effort to take out ISIL wherever they exist, using our air power and our support for partner forces on the ground. And it is consistent with the approach I outlined earlier this year: to use force against anyone who threatens America’s core interests, but to mobilize partners wherever possible to address broader challenges to international order.”According to the administration, the “advise and assist” portion of the training missions in Iraq allow for U.S. forces to accompany partner forces on military or combat excursions. “[W]e'll do more raids…It doesn't represent us assuming a combat role. It represents a continuation of our advise and assist mission,” Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter told reporters on Friday. Carter also pointed to the raid over the summer in Syria against IS’s purported chief financial officer as another example of this type of capability the U.S. possesses – one that assists partners and collects valuable intelligence against the adversary.
The Hill reported that Army Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland, commander of the anti-IS effort in Iraq and Syria, said "the raid was part of ‘overarching counter-terrorism efforts throughout the region’ — which would have allowed troops to come into contact with enemy forces, as with previously conducted raids in Syria.”
Moreover, a White House spokesman last week asserted:
“I think it’s accurate to say that the President has been steadfast in his belief that this is not going to be an effort that involves putting our men and women in a combat role over there. He’s been very clear in delineating what the nature of operations that our men and women would be serving under. That includes the train, advise, and assist operation. That includes Special Forces operations, humanitarian rescue operations, and also counterterrorism missions.”U.S. participation in the raid last week as well as similar operations against terrorist groups is consistent with the Obama administration’s “light footprint” approach to eradicating threats to national security, despite the president’s duplicitous language concerning no combat boots in Iraq. Yemen and Somalia are not considered combat zones for U.S. forces, yet U.S. commandos have operated there for years. Furthermore, while the combat mission in Afghanistan has officially concluded, U.S. forces continue to conduct active operations against al-Qaeda units both alongside and separate from Afghan forces.
The U.S. legal issue also looms large over the use of troops in counterterrorism operations, especially considering Congress has not passed an authorization against IS – this despite the specious legal interpretation of the administration that IS falls within the scope of the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force. The lack of overt Congressional support – excluding funding for training efforts in the region – is also problematic for "non-combat" combat missions in Iraq and Syria. Last week’s raid is another example of the creative and expansive semantics the Obama administration has relied on for the last six years.