(CNSNews.com) – The first death in action of an American soldier in Iraq since 2011 has refocused attention on the role of U.S. troops in a mission which the administration has emphasized from the outset is not a “combat” one.
Master Sgt. Joshua Wheeler died after being shot an Oct. 22 during a joint U.S.-Kurdish raid on an Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS/ISIL) prison, where dozens of prisoners believed to have been facing execution within hours were freed.
In the course of a press briefing at the Pentagon on Friday, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter at one point said he envisaged more such Special Forces raids in the future, and said that that “doesn’t represent us assuming a combat role” but instead marks a “continuation” of the mission to train and assistant Iraqi forces fighting ISIS.
Carter said he had said from the start that “when we find opportunities to do things that will effectively prosecute the campaign, we’re going to do that.”
Later during the same briefing, speaking in reference to the raid that cost Wheeler’s life, he said, “This is combat – things are complicated.”
Also puzzling was Carter’s prediction of more such raids in the future – one day after Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook described the prison raid as “a unique circumstance in which very close partners of the United States made a specific request for our assistance.”
According to the security council of the Kurdistan Regional Government, 48 Kurdish officers and 27 U.S. Special Forces members were involved in the operation. Sixty-nine hostages were freed and more than 20 ISIS terrorists killed.
Carter did not provide much detail Friday about the raid led by Kurdish forces, but said there had initially been no plan for the accompanying U.S. forces to enter the prison compound or become involved in a fire fight.
“However, when a fire fight ensued, this American did what I’m very proud that Americans do in that situation,” he said. “He ran to the sound of the guns …”
Carter said it was his understanding that the actions of Wheeler and another American had protected their colleagues who were breaching the compound, and ensured the mission’s success.
The Pentagon’s casualty release said that Wheeler, 39, of Roland, Oklahoma, died in Iraq’s Kirkuk province “from wounds received by enemy small-arms fire during an operation.”
Carter said Americans should not be under “any illusions” that U.S. troops attached to Operation Inherent Resolve in Iraq will not be in harm’s way.
“We do not have combat formations there the way we had once upon a time in Iraq, or the way we have had in years past in Afghanistan,” he said. “But we do have people who are in harm’s way, and who evidently have shown a willingness to put themselves in harm’s way in order to have mission success.”
The U.S. commander of Operation Inherent Resolve, Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland, stressed in a statement that the mission in which Wheeler was killed did not represent a change in U.S. military policy in Iraq.
“It is important to realize that U.S. military support to this Iraqi rescue operation is part of our overarching counter-terrorism efforts throughout the region and does not represent a change in our policy,” he said. “U.S. forces are not in Iraq on a combat mission and do not have boots on the ground.”
According to the Pentagon the U.S. participation in the raid on the ISIS prison was authorized by Carter personally.
At the White House Friday, deputy press secretary Eric Schultz said the mission authorized by Carter “is consistent with our mission to train, advise and assist Iraqi forces.”
“I do think the president has made clear, and all of us who speak for the administration will continue to make clear, that he does have no intention to authorize long-term, large-scale ground combat operation like our nation has conducted in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
‘Do not and will not have a combat mission’
Almost four years after the last U.S. troops were withdrawn from Iraq – ending an eight-and-a-half year war that cost more than 4,470 America lives – today there are some 3,550 U.S. service personnel back in the country.
When President Obama in June 2014 announced the first deployment of up to 300 Special Forces troops to train the Iraqis battling ISIS, he said, “American forces will not be returning to combat in Iraq, but we will help Iraqis as they take the fight to terrorists who threaten the Iraqi people, the region and American interests as well.”
Two months later another 130 or so U.S. troops arrived in northern Iraq, and then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel stressed again that their mission was not a combat one:
“Very specifically, this is not a combat, boots-on-the-ground operation.”
That deployment came as the U.S. was looking at ways to rescue tens of thousands of civilians trapped by the ISIS advance on Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq.
Deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes at the time reiterated that Obama has ruled out “reintroducing U.S. forces into combat, on the ground” while he acknowledged that if the troops came under fire they would protect themselves.
In September, Obama said – in the same speech in which he announced the start of airstrikes against ISIS – that he was sending another 475 troops to Iraq, taking the total number there to about 1,518.
“As I have said before, these American forces will not have a combat mission,” he said. “We will not get dragged into another ground war in Iraq. But they are needed to support Iraqi and Kurdish forces with training, intelligence and equipment.”
Later in the address, Obama underlined the point again: “I want the American people to understand how this effort will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said. “It will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil.”
A week later, Obama told troops at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla., “The American forces that have been deployed to Iraq do not and will not have a combat mission. They will support Iraqi forces on the ground as they fight for their own country against these terrorists.”
Last November the White House announced a further expansion of the mission – up to 1,500 additional troops were being deployed “in a non-combat role to train, advise, and assist Iraqi Security Forces, including Kurdish forces.”
And in June of this year the White House signaled the deployment of another 450 troops to “train, advise and assist” Iraqi forces in Anbar province, saying in a statement, “These additional U.S. troops will not serve in a combat role and will augment the 3,100 U.S. troops who have already deployed to Iraq.”