WASHINGTON — Given how quickly Iraqi security forces have ceded large chunks of territory to Islamist militants in the last week, Americans who have 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 in Fallujah and in 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 dangerous country.
"It's a stretch to say they won't see combat," said Eric Young, a former Marine corporal who fought in Fallujah during two deployments to Iraq. "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."
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.
The military advisers will focus on helping protect Baghdad from assault from the insurgent group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, known as ISIS, the Los Angeles Times reported, citing top Obama aides from the Pentagon, the National Security Council and other agencies.
The Obama aides made it clear that the advisers could see some sort of military engagement.
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 beleaguered 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."