By now we have heard the term “boots on the ground” about a million times. From the early days following the attacks of September 11, 2001, to the current situation in Iraq and Syria, the term has been tossed about by both those who believe we need troops on the ground to stabilize violent situations, and those who believe that such conflicts are not our problem and doing so would only make things worse.
I am not writing this to argue either side, but instead to argue that there have been, and likely always will be, Americans on the ground, or at the very least, nearby and ready to go. This will be written from an intelligence perspective, both historical and contemporary, but my argument includes the conventional U.S. military, Special Operations forces, and even those non-military government agencies and law-enforcement agencies that serve overseas and in harm’s way.
Historically, U.S. intelligence agencies have, in one form or another, been included as part of the initial deployment into a country or territory where our government has deemed intervention necessary. In a perfect world, there would be, in addition to both “white” and “black” Special Operations forces, “gray” intelligence agency personnel on the ground, prepping the battle space and gathering intelligence to pass on to military commanders and policymakers.
Operations officers (or OOs, formerly and still sometimes called case officers) would have been on the ground in-country (or in close proximity) meeting with sources (agents or assets) to get ground truth and a feel for what the opposition’s military, government, and even its civilians were planning and thinking. Officers from the Central Intelligence Agency’s Special Activities Center (former Special Activities Division) would be on the ground, working with Army Special Forces, SEALs, Marine Special Operations, and others to train and equip those indigenous people who have either been waging an insurgency against the opposing government, or with the standing military of that nation.
In Iraq, CIA and other intelligence agency officers were on the ground before the initial invasion in March of 2003 (for great background on this, read Operation Hotel California: The Clandestine War Inside Iraq by Mike Tucker and Charles Faddis, Guilford, Ct: The Lyons Press, 2009). There, Agency paramilitary operations officers (PMOOs), support officers, and Special Forces teams established a foothold in Iraqi Kurdistan, working with Kurdish fighters eight months before the main invasion forces arrived.
In September of 2001, just days after the attacks on our country, veteran CIA counterterrorism officer (and one of the officers who was a part of my early career training) Gary Schroen was tapped to lead a team of SAC officers into Afghanistan, link up with a Special Forces A-team, and convince the anti-Taliban, yet internally warring, Afghan warlords to put aside their differences and aid us in rooting out and destroying al-Qaeda elements and their Taliban hosts (Read Schroen’s book, First In: An Insider’s Account of How the CIA Spearheaded the War on Terror in Afghanistan, New York: Ballantine Books, 2005).
Unlike in the movies, not every meeting between an OO and an agent or potential agent takes place at a fancy restaurant or even in a dark alley. In this so-called Global War On Terror (are we allowed to even call it that, anymore?), most meetings take place in a moving vehicle after picking up the agent at a predetermined location, only after a lengthy surveillance-detection run to ensure that the officer has not been followed. Makes for a wonderful atmosphere for an already nervous, sweating tribal leader who you are trying to build rapport with, huh?
So the boots are there. They have been there. There are intelligence officers and the personnel who support them meeting with agents and assets, collecting intel and providing our military commanders and policymakers with a better, if not crystal-clear picture of the battle space and the players in it. Prior to the airstrikes launched against ISIS forces besieging the Yazidi peoples in the mountains of northern Iraq, Special Operations “advisers,” as they are being called, would have been in the area meeting with assets to get a feel for the situation, then collecting tactical and strategic information for use in intel reports. However the media interprets the term, our intelligence agencies and Special Operations personnel have always, and will always, be ready to provide ground truth.