The U.S. military is preparing to establish a new Special Operations task force in Iraq, Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter said Tuesday, as the Obama administration seeks to intensify pressure on Islamic State commanders and expand U.S. troops’ direct involvement in battling the militant group.
The decision to post a specialized military unit of about 200 service members marks an important shift in U.S. operations in Iraq, where up to now U.S. troops have been limited largely to advising local forces rather than launching independent operations. The elite U.S. personnel will be conducting raids against the Islamic State, exposing them to additional risks on the ground.
Carter announced the move in testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, saying the new force would enable the U.S. military to launch additional commando-style operations and increase intelligence collection, both in Iraq and in neighboring Syria.
“We’re good at intelligence; we’re good at mobility; we’re good at surprise. We have the long reach that no one else has,” Carter said.
“It puts everybody on notice in Syria that you don’t know at night who is going to be coming in the window. And that’s the sensation that we want all of ISIL’s leadership and followers to have,” he said.
ISIL is another name for the Islamic State, the extremist group that remains dug in across Iraq and Syria despite more than a year of U.S. and allied airstrikes. Last month, the Islamic State demonstrated its ability to strike the West when a band of supporters, some of whom had fought in Syria, killed 130 people in coordinated attacks across Paris.
Several U.S. officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss plans that are not yet finalized, said the new force was expected to be stationed near Irbil, the capital of Iraq’s northern Kurdish region.
Officials said the team may include at least 200 Special Operations forces, known as “operators,” as well as support troops. The support troops will focus on intelligence, planning, and the operation and maintenance of aircraft, vehicles and other equipment.
The task force is one of several steps the White House approved in October in a bid to energize the U.S.-led coalition’s campaign against the Islamic State, which has managed to hold on to most of the territory it controlled in the summer of 2014.
U.S. officials say that a handful of U.S.-launched raids on Islamic State facilities over the past year have yielded important intelligence about the group’s structure, financing and tactics.
Unlike those raids, which were conducted by U.S. forces based outside of Iraq and Syria, the new task force will provide a more established structure for planning and conducting such operations, closer to the action.
“You have people on the ground who can take prisoners . . . gather hard drives and use that to exploit intelligence,” one official said. Such intelligence could be used to inform future raids or to intensify airstrikes, which critics have said have taken place too sparingly to decisively weaken the group.
Officials also said that they hope the creation of the task force will cut down on the lag between the identification of important intelligence and when an operation can begin. The task force is a way to “create opportunities,” another official said.
Officials stressed that the task force would operate in coordination with the Iraqi government and may also conduct extensive operations with Kurdish peshmerga troops or other Iraqi forces.
In Iraq, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s office issued a statement saying that foreign combat troops were not needed in Iraq.
The mission of the task force, if established, would differ from that of other U.S. troops in Iraq, said Paul Scharre, a former Army Ranger and Pentagon official now at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank.
There are now about 3,500 U.S. troops in Iraq, including some Special Operations forces who are advising Iraqi forces in northern and central Iraq. But for the most part, U.S. forces are helping Iraqis plan operations and rebuilding the country’s shattered army.
“What’s different is that you can get quite a bit more information when you put more boots on the ground, either by capturing leaders or by doing site exploitation,” Scharre said. “This is a playbook that U.S. Special Operations Command has perfected over the last 15 years.”
The Pentagon is also preparing to deploy roughly 50 Special Operations forces into northern Syria, stationing U.S. forces in the multisided conflict there for the first time.
But the new task force will likewise expose U.S. troops to greater danger and make it harder for officials to maintain that U.S. forces remain out of combat in Iraq. The president, who campaigned on ending the war launched by his predecessor, has promised that no U.S. service members will return to combat operations in Iraq.
A Delta Force soldier was killed in October during a joint U.S.-Kurdish raid in central Iraq, the first service member to be killed in combat there since the United States returned to the country in 2014.
Following Carter’s announcement, in a reminder of the confrontations that characterized the previous Iraq war, spokesmen for some of Iraq’s powerful Shiite militias threatened to fight any U.S. troops sent to Iraq.
The defense secretary provided insight into Pentagon plans as President Obama defended his strategy for countering the extremist group.
Speaking in Paris, where he was attending international climate talks, Obama sought to parse differences between U.S. policy and that of Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose forces are now conducting airstrikes across Syria in support of embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Obama is at once seeking to encourage Putin to drop his support for his ally Assad — as unlikely as that may be — and also defuse the potential for direct Russian confrontation with the West or with Turkey, which last month shot down a Russian fighter jet that Ankara said had flown into Turkish air space.
“I’m confident that we are on the winning side of this and that, ultimately, Russia is going to recognize the threat that ISIL poses to its country, to its people, is the most significant, and that they need to align themselves with those of us who are fighting ISIL,” Obama told reporters.
Meanwhile, Secretary of State John F. Kerry arrived in Brussels on Tuesday to secure promises of additional help from NATO allies in the campaign against the Islamic State.
Critics have described Obama’s military campaign as inadequate to deal with the group, which has attracted fighters from around the world.
Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), an influential Republican, welcomed the task force’s creation but compared White House actions in Iraq and Syria to the gradual expansion of U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
“It also indicates we don’t have a strategy,” he told MSNBC. “We are reacting to Paris. We have to articulate, lay down a strategy.”
Karen DeYoung, Thomas Gibbons-Neff, Juliet Eilperin and Greg Jaffe in Washington contributed to this report. Steven Mufson contributed from Paris and Carol Morello contributed from Brussels.