In a dramatic predawn raid, dozens of Delta Force operators deployed alongside elite Kurdish troops to raid an ISIL compound in Iraq in hopes of freeing prisoners who were under threat of imminent execution. It seems the mission was largely a success, though one American operator was shot and killed in the fighting, and several of the Kurds were wounded as well.
This afternoon, Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook took questions from reporters about the raid, and much of the back-and-forth consisted of fencing over whether Delta Force's role portends a shift to a boots-on-the-ground combat role for U.S. forces in Iraq. Cook insisted that it did not, that our ground forces have only a train-and-assist mission in Iraq, and that they were present on this operation only in the "assist" capacity. But he had little choice but to also say the following:
-- in this instance, U.S. forces always have the right to defend themselves, and in this instance, they also have the ability to protect partner forces as well, and to protect against the loss of innocent civilian life, and that's what took place in this circumstance in particular.
Cook was speaking extemporaneously, and not claiming to articulating precise legal or policy boundaries. And yet the fact remains that the episode illustrates in a vivid way something that should have been clear already: the "assist" part of the train-and-assist mission is not just a synonym for "train," and it certainly doesn't mean our forces stay on base and out of harm's way. On the contrary, it means, among other things, that US troops from time to time will go outside the wire not only to provide airlift for local partners, but when the right circumstances arise to be present on the ground assisting operations in other ways--including using force as they and their partners come under fire, if not beforehand (in anticipation of inevitably being fired upon).
What to make of this from the perspective of understanding the administration's policy on the military's role in Iraq? It's not a total dodge; this conception of an "assist" mission is, in my opinion, genuinely different from a mission embracing a full ground combat role. But it is not that different. On the margins the categories plainly blur, and it certainly would be a mistake to read the anodyne word "assist" so as to entirely exclude direct involvement in combat.
To be clear, I'm more than fine with U.S. forces conducting missions like this one. My point is that we should stop being bashful about what current policy really permits U.S. ground forces to do, and just acknowledge that we intend, from time to time, to allow special operations forces to fight alongside the allies they are training and assisting.