October 23, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: First U.S. Combat Death Fighting the Islamic State

• The U.S. Department of Defense reported the first death of a U.S. soldier in ground combat against the Islamic State, which occurred yesterday during a hostage rescue in Iraq

• This marks the first U.S. combat death in Iraq since 2011, and is a sign that the year-long air campaign against the Islamic State is beginning to include more U.S. ground operations

• The raid near the northern town of Hawijah reportedly rescued 70 people, many of whom were Iraqi security officers facing looming executions

• While the U.S. has not planned to deploy large numbers of ground forces to Iraq, Special Forces raids conducted with Iraqi and Kurdish forces will likely increase as the ground war against the Islamic State expands.


Reports of the first U.S. ground casualty in direct combat with the so-called Islamic State in Iraq point to growing U.S. ground efforts as the year-long air campaign has failed to sufficiently diminish the group. The death is the first such U.S. casualty in Iraq since 2011, and reportedly occurred during a raid to rescue a large number of hostages held by the Islamic State in the northern city of Hawijah.

The joint U.S. and Kurdish raid indicates quality actionable intelligence and the capability and willingness of both Kurdish and American Special Forces units to commit to a difficult mission. Said to be among the 70 people rescued were Iraqi security officers; all the hostages were reportedly facing ‘imminent execution’ by their captors.

The raid also points out that as much as the U.S. wants to limit its ground footprint in Iraq, it will likely need to increase its operational tempo relating to joint raids such as the one in Hawijah. The ongoing mission to train and equip the Iraqi army is a ponderous and expensive redux of a previous effort to reform and remake the Iraqi military between 2003-2011. Joint raids by elite forces will not themselves destroy the Islamic State any more than airstrikes will. They are, however, a tactical maneuver that can be used to great effect and advantage when actionable intelligence is available.

As in last month’s fighting in the Afghan city of Kunduz, U.S. advisors in Iraq are serving as force multipliers within a dysfunctional military, government, and society. It is a sobering fact that these raids are needed so many years into the conflicts in both Afghanistan and Iraq—and will be needed much more in the coming months and years. The rot at the heart of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan—to say nothing of the far worse situation in Syria—guarantees that the U.S. will step up its ground operations, however reluctantly.

An issue with increasing the number of U.S. operations in Iraq is the security and logistic tail that must follow, and the omnipresent threat of mission creep. This happens repeatedly when U.S. advisory or Special Forces engagements are tasked with achieving results far beyond their mandate and capabilities, such as turning the tide of stalemated or deteriorating conflicts in divided societies that are at war with themselves.

It is unclear how large a role the U.S. will play in future operations in Iraq. As efforts to retake Ramadi bog down and plans for Mosul keep being pushed back, the U.S. will face increased pressure to get more involved in a country from which it seems unable to extricate itself successfully.


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