The presidential debates have sparked intense discussion of the Islamic State and America’s role in defeating extremism. The candidates on both sides have proposed multiple solutions of the advise and assist variety, with several candidates proposing the use of special operations in a role augmenting friendly local forces—in other words, a combat role.
I can’t help but recall when the mission in Iraq transitioned to “advise and assist” during the last phase of Operation New Dawn (OND). The only thing that changed was the language on awards and official communiqués. Our operational role remained the same.
As is already the case, the role of SOF advisors in Iraq has morphed into active ground combat, defying the political narrative. The costs have just begun to be borne out with the death of Master Sergeant Joshua L. Wheeler, a seasoned and highly decorated Special Forces operator killed during a daring hostage rescue that freed dozens of Iraqi civilians.
The general rationale behind a limited involvement strategy is that American (Western) involvement contributes to the recruiting narrative of the Islamic State. This is largely true. The narrative of jihadi leaders regarding Western action in the region is framed in terms of the ‘West vs. Islam’ or ‘Christianity vs. Islam,’ which drives their recruiting power by positioning the Umma (whole Muslim community) as victims of Western aggression. Hence the calls by candidates for withholding U.S. ground support and enabling the friendly Sunni and Kurdish forces, an attempted remake of the awakening movement that helped turn the tide in the Iraq War circa 2007.