Kurdish peshmerga fighters will get $415 million from the U.S. to join the Mosul offensive that will be aided by 217 additional U.S. Special Operations troops working down to the battalion level as advisors with frontline Iraqi forces, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said Monday.
On a brief visit to Baghdad, Carter also said that additional AH-64 Apache attack helicopters and another Lockheed Martin M142High Mobility Artillery Rocket System would be sent to Iraq to "accelerate" the campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.
The Apaches flown by U.S. crews have thus far only been used to counter threats to American forces but Carter's announcement suggested that they could be sent to support Iraqi Security Forces now struggling to make headway against ISIS from a staging base at Makmour, about 60 miles southeast of Mosul.
Because of Iraq's internal politics, and pressure from Iran not to appear overly-reliant on U.S. support, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abad has in the past rejected the use of Apaches to back up Iraqi Security Forces in such actions as the retaking of Ramadi in Anbar province earlier this year.
HIMARS missile systems have already been positioned to defend U.S. troops at the Taqqadam airbase in Iraq's southern Anbar province, and another system in Jordan last month fired into Syria to support a U.S.-backed militia group against ISIS.
The 217 additional U.S. Special Operations troops will boost the official count of U.S. troops in Iraq to more than 4,000 for the first time since ISIS fighters swept out of Syria in June 2014 to occupy large swathes of Iraq.
The authorized level of U.S. troops had been 3,870, and the addition of the 217 would put the official count at 4,087. However, the actual number of U.S. troops in Iraq has routinely exceeded 5,000 for the last several months due to overlaps in troop rotations and the deployment of personnel on temporary assignments that do not count against the official total, according to U.S. military spokesmen.
In an interview with CBS' Charlie Rose, President Barack Obama said that the deployment of more U.S. advisers and additional weapons systems were part of the overall plan to back local forces in the fight against ISIS, but he essentially conceded that retaking Mosul won't happen before he leaves office.
"As we see the Iraqis willing to fight and gaining ground, let's make sure that we're providing them support," Obama said. The added support will "tighten the noose" on ISIS, he said, but he suggested that the retaking of Mosul would be left to his successor in the White House.
Carter last month said Obama continually asked him what could be done to retake Mosul this year. The president told CBS, "My expectations is that by the end of the year, we will have created the conditions whereby Mosul will eventually fall."
In a visit with U.S. troops at Baghdad International airport, Carter said that the escalation of the campaign against ISIS and the deployment of the 217 Special Ops troops was intended "to make sure the defeat of [ISIS] is lasting.
"The Iraqis are still in the lead. That doesn't change," the secretary said in separate remarks to NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt. The additional troops and weapons systems "are capabilities that will continue the process of accelerating the defeat" of ISIS, he said, adding that "I'm very comfortable our operational approach is the right one."
However, "in the end, the Iraqi forces will have to do the defeating. We can help them, we cannot substitute for them," he said, even though "Americans are at risk today every single day here. As secretary of defense, I take that more seriously than anything else."
Carter suggested that Americans will be at more risk as the campaign accelerates in the effort the defeat ISIS. "We need to get that done as soon as possible and that means being more aggressive in the moves we make," he said.
Last month, Marine Staff Sgt. Louis Cardin was killed and eight other Marines were wounded by ISIS rocket fire that hit a fire base for 155mm howitzers set up by Marines from the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit near Makhmour.
Of the $415 million in U.S. funding for the Peshmerga, Carter said only that the money would go to support "selected peshmerga units." Kurdish officials, struggling with a financial crisis that has left the Peshmerga fighters unpaid for the last three months, were ecstatic over the announcement and took to Twitter to praise Carter's action.
Lahur Talabani, director of the Kurdish Regional Government's intelligence agency, tweeted, "We thank the U.S. government for their commitment & support to our brave peshmerga forces who have been fighting ISIS on the world's behalf."
"In response to a request from the Kurdistan Regional Government for economic assistance, the Department of Defense will provide these funds on a monthly basis to support selected Peshmerga units," Pentagon spokesman Matthew Allen told the Kurdish news agency Rudaw.
"These forces have been among the most effective in the fight against ISIL and will be critical in the retaking of Mosul," Allen said, using another name for ISIS.
In response to Carter's announcement, Sen. John McCain, a Republican from Arizona and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, renewed his criticism of the Obama administration's approach to the conflicts in both Iraq and Syria, saying that the deployment of the additional Special Ops troops was another example of "grudging incrementalism."
The deployment of the additional troops was welcome, McCain said, but the piecemeal dispatch of U.S. forces to conflict zones was a tactic that "rarely wins wars, but could certainly lose one.
"This deployment is also representative of the increasing operational demands imposed upon our military that are not funded in the President's already inadequate defense budget request," the senator said in a statement.
McCain said failing to devote more money to defense puts "the lives of our service members at increased risk."
--Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.