WaPo: Bet you didn't know US has 5,000 troops in Iraq

We do? A few hundred troops here, a few hundred troops, there, and it apparently adds up. The death of a Marine sergeant at an outpost in Iraq raised questions about the number of US troops in Iraq, and their precise mission. The Washington Post’s Missy Ryan got an answer — one that may surprise those who assumed Barack Obama had pulled us out of Iraq’s war for good:

The U.S. military has around 5,000 service members in Iraq, officials said on Monday, far more than previously reported, as the Obama administration quietly expands ground operations against the Islamic State.

The number of American forces in Iraq has come under increased scrutiny following the death over the weekend of a Marine staff sergeant, the second combat casualty in renewed U.S. operations in Iraq. He was killed when militants launched rockets at a small U.S. base around the city of Makhmour. The existence of the Marine detachment had not been known prior to Staff Sgt. Louis F. Cardin’s death.

It wasn’t just a detachment; Cardin served in an artillery unit conducting support for the Iraqi Army advancing on Mosul. Until recently, the DoD offered precise counts of troops deployed in Iraq. Not any more:

The Defense Department has also reversed an earlier position and are now declining to confirm how many forces are presently in Iraq, saying only that the number of officially assigned forces is below the current cap of 3,870.

“People come through on a temporary basis and go above and below the force cap all the time, but we remain under our force cap,” Col. Steve Warren, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, told reporters on Monday.

But officials privately acknowledge that the total troop number, while it varies from day to day, now stands around 5,000. The more than 1,000 personnel above the official cap include the Marines in northern Iraq along with military officials handling foreign military sales and other defense cooperation matters.

A deployment of 5,000 troops in any configuration is a significant presence in a war zone. If put together with a mission for effective combat, it could be enough to do serious damage to ISIS’ grip on the western Iraqi desert. The problem, as it has been ever since Obama’s casual dismissal of ISIS as the “jayvees,” is that the US doesn’t have a coherent strategy to fulfill its stated mission of “degrading and ultimately destroying” ISIS. The piecemeal addition of troops to Iraq and the significance of their numbers now provide a testament to the reactive nature of the US response to ISIS.

That didn’t start in 2014, either; it goes all the way back to Obama’s first presidential campaign, and especially his decision not to pursue a standing combat-ready presence in Iraq in 2011. Imagine if we had kept 5,000 combat troops in place in 2011, when ISIS was still known as al-Qaeda in Iraq and all but vanquished. We would not have released Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and we could have immediately confronted and wiped out any attempt by AQI to reform and take territory in western Iraq.

Now, as David French writes, Obama has us back in the war he pretended was over, only in far worse position than had we just stayed put in the first place:

Without much fanfare, Obama has dramatically reversed his Iraq policy — sending thousands of troops back in the country after he declared the war over, engaging in ground combat despite initially promising that his strategy “will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil.” Well, they’re on foreign soil, and they’re fighting.

Good. All is not yet lost in Iraq, and if we can — at long last — chase ISIS from Iraqi territory, then we will go at least partway towards undoing the damage caused by Obama’s premature withdrawal. For all his faults, at least Obama hasn’t committed the mortal sin of abandonment that doomed South Vietnam.

Well, maybe. If this becomes widely known, we might see Obama back away from it again, although his previous statements will put him in a bind in either direction. Chasing ISIS from Iraq will take more than piecemeal deployments, however — it will take a coordinated strategy that pushes the terrorist quasi-state off the ground it seized in the vacuum we left. Fighting ISIS is one thing, but defeating it is another. The biggest lesson has yet to be learned by Obama and his political allies: Wars do not end simply because one side decides to stop fighting.