In Iraq, US troops edge closer to front lines against ISIS

The death of an American service member points to a shift in how the Pentagon is fighting the Islamic State in Iraq.

US Navy/Reuters
Navy Warfare Operator 1st Class Charles Keating IV of San Diego was killed in northern Iraq Tuesday.

The death of an American service member in Iraq this week highlights the new risks of a recent shift in the United States' military strategy in Iraq.

To help local forces, the Pentagon is moving more troops "closer to the action," as Defense Secretary Ash Carter puts it. The thinking is that local forces can take over the security of territory once Islamic State fighters are ousted, but they aren't yet capable of winning the territory back by themselves.

That's where US troops can help, but increased casualties could come from that, officials say.

“Unfortunately, I think that conversation is going to come more to the fore now, because of events," a senior US defense official said this week following the death of Petty Officer First Class Charles Keating, a Navy SEAL who was working with Kurdish Peshmerga forces in northern Iraq.

Some Republican lawmakers call the slow but steady force build-up “grudging incrementalism.” And the strategy holds risks beyond the potential for increased American casualties.

Unless the Iraqi government can overcome sectarian tensions that have hindered its effectiveness and acceptance, it won't be capable of building the skilled, professional, and nonsectarian local forces needed to keep the peace in the long run. 

“That's a serious concern to us,” Secretary Carter told lawmakers last month.

The hope is that stronger security forces will bolster efforts to improve governance, too. Rousting the Islamic State from Iraq will boost the government's credibility, the thinking goes. And better-trained security forces will help that government keep its territory by, among other things, not harassing and persecuting locals to the point that they'd rather support insurgent groups like the Islamic State.

After all, Carter noted, the integrity of an inclusive Iraqi state isn’t just helpful for winning the war – it’s the reason for fighting it.

Petty Officer First Class Keating was killed while coming to the aid of Americans troops under fire after Islamic State fighters breached Peshmerga lines. His death brings to three the total number of US troop losses since the country reentered Iraq after its 2011 departure.

US forces will see more battles in the months to come, and top Pentagon officials have said there will likely be more troops on their way to Iraq later this year. The plan going forward is for US forces to train smaller units that are more likely to be doing the fighting, rather than advising military headquarters, as they had been doing before.

While the White House has insisted for months that US forces have a training mission and "are not in a combat role” in Iraq, the language used by Pentagon officials seems designed to brace the public for more casualties.

“He was in a firefight, and he died in combat. I want to be very, very clear about that,” Carter said of Keating.

“People need to understand everyday that people are at risk, and that, tragically, losses will occur.” The losses are worth it, he insisted.

“It’s going to be a hard, but it’s a necessary fight. And fighting it is – we need to be realistic about that.”

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