Nation & World

Iraq vets say Obama’s promise of no combat for U.S. advisers will be hard to keep

Given how quickly Iraqi security forces have ceded large chunks of territory to Islamist militants in the last week, Americans who’ve fought in Iraq say President Barack Obama’s insistence that the up to 300 military advisers headed there will avoid combat could easily be broken.

The president’s national security aides say the advisers will be “special operators” _ military lingo for Special Operations forces. While those troops include the Army’s Delta Force, Navy SEALs, and Marine Corps and Air Force units, defense experts say most, and perhaps all, of the advisers en route to Iraq will be Army Green Berets, because of their expertise in training foreign fighters.

“These special operators will be advisers, but they will be with Iraqi units, and if those units get engaged by the enemy, they will defend themselves,” said Fred Wellman, a former Army lieutenant colonel who served as spokesman for Gen. David Petraeus when he commanded U.S. and allied troops in Iraq.

Andrew van Wey, a former Marine Corps sergeant who fought in the Second Battle of Fallujah and other parts of Iraq’s Sunni-dominated Anbar province in 2004 and 2005, said widespread public opposition to a resumption of direct U.S. combat in Iraq requires Obama to say that the advisers won’t see fighting. But he said such assurances can’t be taken at face value.

“‘Combat’ is an elastic term when you talk about special operations guys, because you never know what they’re going to be doing,” van Wey, who now does marketing for a military apparel firm in Fort Worth, Texas, said in an interview. “The nature of these guys’ jobs is covert. When you send in special operations, they leave a smaller footprint than infantry or other conventional forces. That’s how they get around violating the spirit of ‘no boots on the ground.’”

Others who served in Iraq said that once the new U.S. troops are embedded with their Iraqi counterparts, all bets are off, because there are few safe havens in a very dangerous country.

“It’s a stretch to say they won’t see combat,” Eric Young, a former Marine corporal who fought in Fallujah during two deployments to Iraq, told McClatchy. “More than likely those Green Berets will take up leadership roles in the Iraqi military. They may not be doing a lot of fighting, but they won’t just sit back and call for support. They’re there to lead from the front. You don’t lead from the back.”

The last U.S. combat brigades left Iraq at the end of 2011. Obama last weekend dispatched 170 troops to help move some staff from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, with 100 additional troops stationed outside Iraq in case more evacuations are necessary.

Wellman said that with the United States having spent billions of dollars and lost thousands of lives in its almost nine-year military engagement in Iraq, Obama and his top commanders are determined not to see a repeat of the horrors of 1975, when U.S. military helicopters had to rescue Americans from the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon as the capital of South Vietnam fell to the communists.

“We can’t afford to let Baghdad fall to extremists,” Wellman said. “There is no way this president is going to allow the world’s biggest embassy (in Baghdad) look like Saigon.”

Top Obama aides from the Pentagon, the National Security Council and other agencies said the new advisers will focus on helping protect Baghdad from assault from the insurgent group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, known as ISIS. Its fighters captured the cities of Mosul and Tikrit last week on their southward sweep toward the capital.

“We’re going to start small with just several small teams of about a dozen each,” a senior administration official told reporters Thursday in a conference call. “And they will mostly be at the higher (Iraqi security forces) headquarters level, perhaps down at the brigade level.”

While the Obama aides on the call, who declined to be identified so they could speak about the operation, said they “typically don’t talk about specific rules of engagement,” the aides made it clear that the advisers could see some sort of military engagement, despite Obama’s public assertions that they won’t have a combat mission.

“The president is focused on a number of potential contingencies that may demand direct U.S. military action,” said an administration aide on the call. “One of those (contingencies) is the threat from (ISIS) and the threat that it could pose not simply to Iraqi stability, but to U.S. personnel and to U.S. interests more broadly, certainly including our homeland.”

Retired Army Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, who helped train Iraqi soldiers for a year after the March 2003 U.S. invasion, said the advisers are going into a highly risky environment in a newly embattled country.

“I would never expect any leader of the United States to send men into a dangerous situation without giving them the right to respond (to attack) with everything they’ve got,” Eaton said in an interview. “They must have the right to defend themselves with what they carry in, and to respond with other assets that can be brought to bear to make them safe.”

When President John F. Kennedy sent military advisers to Vietnam, his assurances that they did not have combat missions were quickly overtaken by violence, with 52 slain by the end of 1962. A speech Kennedy gave about Vietnam in September 1963 bears eerie resemblances to Obama’s recent remarks about Iraq.

“In the final analysis, it is their war,” Kennedy said of the South Vietnamese. “They are the ones who have to win it or lose it. We can help them, we can give them equipment, we can send our men out there as advisers, but they have to win it _ the people of Vietnam.”

Kennedy spoke at the start of what would become a long, deadly war. Obama’s words have come some 30 months after he believed that American fighting in Iraq was over.

Related stories from Sacramento Bee