Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has again addressed the controversial issue of U.S. "boots on the ground" in Iraq and Syria, saying that more American troops would be deployed in an "enabling" role.
"Boots on the ground? We have 3,500 boots on the ground" in Iraq and "we're looking for opportunities to do more," Carter told CNN's Fareed Zakaria in an interview last week at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
Carter acknowledged there are about 50 U.S. Special Forces troops serving as advisers in Syria to local forces opposed to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, in addition to the 3,500-3,600 American troops serving as trainers and advisors to the Iraqi Security Forces.
"We're not looking to substitute for local forces in terms of governing the place and policing the place," Carter said. "That's why we put Special Forces in Syria. They're tremendous force multipliers. They're the ones who connect them to the great might of our military. The strategic concept is not to substitute but to enable" local forces, he said.
Carter also referred to the 1,300 soldiers from the 2nd Brigade Combat Team of the 101st Airborne Division out of Fort Campbell, Kentucky, who will deploy to Iraq this spring to replace a similar number of troops from the 1st Brigade Combat Team of the 10th Mountain Division in the training role. The 1st BCT will return to Fort Drum, New York.
In his meetings last week in Switzerland and in Paris with allied defense officials, Carter said that the number of U.S. and coalition troops in Iraq would "increase greatly as the momentum of the effort increases."
Carter said the main focus would be on routing militants affiliated with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, from Mosul, the main stronghold of the insurgents in Iraq, and from Raqqa, the self-proclaimed ISIS capital in Syria.
"We need to destroy them in those two places, and I'd like to get on with that as soon as possible," he said.
However, in a briefing from Baghdad to the Pentagon last week, Army Col. Steve Warren, chief spokesman for Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, said "We don't have a solid number yet" on how many additional troops will be deployed as trainers to join the estimated 3,550 U.S. troops now on the ground in Iraq.
"It's certainly hundreds that will probably be at the top end -- not thousands, hundreds," but additional U.S. support troops may also be needed for the Mosul build-up, he said.
In an editorial for Politico last week, Carter said, "We are gathering momentum on a number of fronts and are determined to put ISIL on an irreversible path to lasting defeat. Now is the time to do even more. As we accelerate our campaign, so must every one of our coalition partners."
President Barack Obama has ruled out ground combat for U.S. forces and also to date barred American forward air controller from the frontlines to guide airstrikes, but the debate has continued in Congress over the definition of "boots on the ground" and whether military personnel have been engaged in "combat."
Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James frequently refers to the "boots in the air" of U.S. pilots flying missions in Iraq and Syria.
At a Pentagon news conference last October, Carter attempted to explain how a U.S. soldier could die heroically in a combat raid while the nation was still not involved in "boots on the ground" combat.
Carter hailed 39-year-old Delta Force Master Sgt. Joshua Wheeler as an exemplary hero who "ran to the sound of the guns" in a helicopter assault with Kurdish Peshmerga fighters that freed 70 ISIS hostages. He was the first U.S. combat fatality of the campaign against ISIS.
"This is combat," Carter said of the raid on an ISIS prison compound east of the town of Hawija in northern Iraq, and "we expect do to do more of this kind of thing."
However, he added "things are complicated" when asked if the policy against U.S. troops engaging in direct combat was still in effect.
"Americans are flying combat missions, thousands of combat missions, over Syria and Iraqi territory," Carter said in rejecting accusations of "mission creep."
"There are Americans involved in training and advising Iraqi security forces around the country," he said, but "we do not have combat formations there the way we had once upon a time in Iraq, or the way we have had in years past in Afghanistan."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.