The Obama administration quietly announced a significant new escalation in its war against Islamic State last week: It’s deploying U.S. special operations troops on the ground in Iraq and Syria to go after leaders of the Islamist movement.
The announcement didn’t make much of a splash, perhaps because it came so carefully swathed in military euphemism. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter called the new unit a “specialized expeditionary targeting force”; that’s a lot less punchy than “Delta Force” or “Seal Team Six,” the elite outfits that will provide the fighters.
And the initial force will be small: 200 troops at most, of whom fewer than 100 will be commandos who kick down doors and kill (or, less often, capture) terrorists. Still, the decision was important for several reasons. It was a clear departure from President Obama’s oft-repeated insistence that he would put no “boots on the ground” in Iraq or Syria. (By “no boots,” Obama explained, he really meant no “Iraq-style invasion,” no “battalions that are moving across the desert.”)
It was also an implicit acknowledgment that the limited force the United States has devoted to the fight against Islamic State hasn’t been enough to win - although Obama or his aides weren’t eager to say that. (They did, however, take pains to say the decision was made before the Islamic State attacks in Paris on Nov. 13, and that it wasn’t a hasty response to the criticism that came after.)
And, unlike earlier decisions to deploy military force, this one came without a promise that it would remain strictly limited in size or scope. If the initial raids are successful, officials suggested, the new force could expand further.
To critics on the left, the decision will look like another step onto the slippery slope toward deeper military involvement - after earlier steps that have already sent 3,550 U.S. troops to Iraq as advisors. Critics on the right will consider the move too minimalist. But the special operations force, however small, could make a difference. Carter described its purpose this way:
“The objective . will be to take out ISIL leadership, to capture ISIL leadership, to rescue hostages>and to capture intelligence,” he said, using the U.S. government’s acronym for Islamic State. “It puts everyone on notice in Syria: You don’t know at night when someone’s going to be coming in the window.”
There’s a historical irony here: By sending special operations forces to eliminate the leaders of Islamic State, Obama is reviving a strategy that was developed during the George W. Bush administration more than a decade ago.
Under the leadership of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, special operations teams launched nighttime raids against Al Qaeda in Iraq, scooping up intelligence that sometimes allowed them to move against new targets within hours. In 2006, they killed the group’s leader, Abu Musab Zarqawi, and reduced his organization to ineffective fragments.
(The sequel: Al Qaeda in Iraq’s remaining members regrouped in Syria - and renamed themselves Islamic State.)
There’s at least one major difference between that earlier effort and this one: McChrystal had a dozen or more strike teams available in Iraq. The new expeditionary targeting force won’t be big enough for a rapid-fire ground operation. Instead, it will mainly work to identify targets for the U.S. air campaign against Islamic State.
But like McChrystal’s operation - or any combat venture - it will come with risks. Even before the mission was formally broadened, a U.S. “non-combat” advisor in Iraq was killed last month when he joined Iraqi forces on a raid, the first American combat death in the country since 2011.
Obama is caught between his distaste for committing U.S. troops to combat and his commitment to “destroy” Islamic State. With this decision, he’s acknowledged that Islamic State can’t be defeated without some U.S. troops fighting on the ground. If the first expeditionary forces succeed, as their record suggests they will, they will almost surely be followed by more.
Doyle McManus is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.