Editor’s Note: About a year ago, Special Forces officer Tyler Mac penned this predictive analysis of the SECDEF’s plans to support the ground war in Iraq. One year on, how accurate was his analysis?
On October 22, 2015, U.S. Special Operations Forces, in concert with Iraqi Peshmerga partners conducted a hostage rescue mission at the request of the Kurdistan Regional Government. Twenty Islamic State (ISIS) combatants were killed, 5 detained, and 70 hostages including 20 members of the Iraqi Security Forces were rescued. MSG Joshua L. Wheeler was killed during the mission. He had fourteen deployments in support of Operations IRAQI FREEDOM and ENDURING FREEDOM. Fourteen deployments.
Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter recently stated the United States would place U.S. troops in direct action in Iraq and Syria. Wait, no, that is NOT what he said. Allow me to correct myself, you, and other media sources out there. Here is a direct quote (emphasis added) from testimony as delivered by Secretary of Defense Ash Carter on October 27, 2015 before the Senate Armed Services Committee:
The third and final “R” is raids, signaling that we won’t hold back from supporting capable partners in opportunistic attacks against ISIL, or conducting such missions directly, whether by strikes from the air or direct action on the ground. Last week’s rescue operation was led by Iraqi Kurdish forces, with U.S. advisers in support. One of those accompanying advisors, Master Sergeant Joshua Wheeler, heroically acted to ensure the overall success of the mission and lost his life in the process. The death of any service member is a tragedy, and as I told his family and teammates this weekend, we offer our condolences to Master Sergeant Wheeler’s loved ones for their loss. While our mission in Iraq is to train, advise, and assist our Iraqi partners, in situations such as that operation – where we have actionable intelligence and a capable partner force – we want to support our partners and we will.
Shame on news media outlets who spun this as a direct action order for the entire Armed Forces. Social media was replete with talk of stop loss, impending deployments, aircraft staging, etc. Knock off the misleading headlines, educate yourself, help educate others; read the entire testimony.
Keep in mind, this is not the first direct action conducted against ISIS; just the first that resulted in a U.S. death. There was one in May which killed ISIS leader Abu Sayyaf. We have launched Special Operations raids against everyone from Somali pirates to the head of al-Qaeda. As the SECDEF later said in his statement, “once we locate [terrorist leaders], no target is beyond our reach.” Special Operations is going after terrorism worldwide, ruthlessly and routinely. Perhaps, too routinely.
If there was ever a case of “performance punishment,” the coming operations in Syria and Iraq are it. SOF is expected to be main effort for the foreseeable future, a fact mentioned by The Havok Journal in “We Are Back at War in Iraq.” As such, SOF will bear the brunt of the cost. MSG Wheeler had fourteen deployments. Fourteen, intense, highly kinetic, combat focused deployments against hardened enemy fighters. Five, ten or more operational deployments to combat is no longer the exception for many Special Operators, it is the norm. My warrant officer had ten deployments. New guys from 2011 are now seasoned veterans on their third or fourth rotation overseas. After 14 years of war, a serious discussion should be had on the sustainability of the “SOF first and always” approach.
The entire military is not getting mobilized to invade Iraq or Syria. SOF and its supporting assets are maintaining their status quo: always ready, always deployed. The wars supposedly ended, operational names were changed, and rules of engagement became more restrictive, but the hostage rescue missions, direct action raids, air strikes, and foreign internal defense partnerships with Afghan Commandos or host-nation SOF continued unabated.
At least we can stop pretending the United States, or at least SOF, is not at war. It is who they are, it is what they do, but there are consequences to this approach. MSG Wheeler’s family and hundreds of other families know those consequences all too well.
In many pragmatic and realistic ways, we do not have a choice. Iraq and Syria cannot be allowed to devolve into safe havens for terrorism, period. The tip of the spear has to be thrust into the fire of combat again to keep U.S. territory and interests safe. Experienced men and women will face danger routinely, often nightly when ordered. The same operators, the same teams, the same aircrews are going back to the places where they cut their teeth at the turn of the century. Blood, sweat, and tears and shed over the last 14 years are being revisited. It did not have to end up this way, but that is the cost of not doing things right the first time. We just have to remain situationally aware and sharpen the tip of the spear from time to time.
Constant use dulls a blade. We cannot afford for that to happen to U.S. SOF.