Defense Secretary Ash Carter on Friday promised that American forces would participate in more raids like the rescue mission that left an elite Delta Force commando dead. But Carter insisted that those plans will not violate President Barack Obama’s pledge of no American “boots-on-the-ground” in the campaign against the Islamic State.
A day after the U.S.-Kurdish raid that freed 70 hostages from an Islamic State prison in Hawija, Iraq, Carter portrayed the dead commando, Army Master Sgt. Joshua Wheeler, as a hero who was a credit to his Army Special Operations Command training at Fort Bragg, N.C.
Wheeler, 39, a native of Oklahoma, was the first American to be killed in Iraq by hostile forces in almost four years. With the exit of most U.S. troops completed, Obama declared a formal end to the United States’ 11-year combat mission in August 2011.
When he ordered the first of 3,000 troops back to Iraq in June 2014, Obama maintained that the Americans’ assignment was only to train Iraqi soldiers, not to engage in ground combat.
Carter maintained that position while at the same time warning the Islamic State to expect more surprise attacks by U.S. commandos.
Saying “we’ll do more raids,” Carter explained: “It doesn’t represent us assuming a combat role. It represents a continuation of our advise-and-assist mission.”
One of Wheeler’s representatives in Congress, Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, wasn’t buying Carter’s parsing of meaning.
“While the (Obama) administration declared an official end to our combat mission in Iraq in 2011, Oklahomans and our nation are reminded today that combat is still a reality for our all-volunteer force in the Middle East,” Inhofe said.
The likelihood that Americans would engage in combat has been a frequent topic of discussion almost from the moment the United States began bombing Islamic State targets in Iraq in August 2014. That September, Secretary of State John Kerry said that American ground operations could start again in Iraq “if something very, very dramatic changes.” He quickly backtracked in the face of criticism.
Thirteen months later, Carter is treading the same line. Asked how Thursday’s raid and his promised future assaults do not constitute combat, Carter responded: “Americans are flying combat missions, thousands of combat missions, over Syria and Iraqi territory. There are Americans involved in training and advising Iraqi security forces around the country. 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.”
That doesn’t mean, he added, that U.S. troops are not at risk. He cited Wheeler as a tragic but heroic example.
“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. And I think that’s very commendable.”
Carter said Wheeler had done what his training prepared him to do. “When a firefight ensued, this American did what I’m very proud that Americans do in that situation,” Carter said. “He ran to the sound of the guns, and he stood up.”
Carter said that Wheeler’s remains would arrive in the United States on Saturday.
Carter said he authorized the raid in order to save the lives of hostages who were in imminent mortal danger and that the raid was a success. “We have now heard from rescued hostages,” Carter said. “They expected to be executed that day, after morning prayers. Their grave had already been prepared.”
Army Sgt. Master Joshua Wheeler, a member of the elite Delta Force, was the first American killed in Iraq by hostile forces in almost four years.
Using the government’s preferred acronym for the Islamic State, he added: “Not only did our support help prevent another mass killing, we enabled those (Kurdish) partners of ours to deliver ISIL a clear defeat and prevented them from broadcasting a horrific massacre to the world.”
The United States obtained “a significant cache of intelligence” during the raid, Carter said. The Pentagon had said earlier that five Islamic State militants were captured; six to 20 of the jihadists were killed, according to various reports.
“You learn a great deal because you collect the documentation, you collect various electronic equipment and so forth,” he said. “On top of which, we now have 70 individuals who spent a lot of time there and who were, in turn, captured by ISIL in different ways and thereby had different perspectives.”
James Rosen: 202-383-0014; @jamesmartinrose