Pentagon chief leaves door open for more US boots on the ground

Pentagon chief leaves door open for more US boots on the ground
© Getty Images

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter left the door open to more U.S. boots on the ground in Iraq during a recent press briefing. 

"I think we've made clear and the president has made clear and I've made clear that if opportunities can be found, where U.S. advise and assist forces can make a difference, we're prepared to do that," he told reporters en route to Turkey on Tuesday. 

ADVERTISEMENT

"The president has shown that now on a number of occasions," he added. "It's not a new part of our thinking to be looking for opportunities wherein we could have an important tactical or strategic effect by assisting others on the ground."

President Obama had previously pledged no "boots on the ground" in Iraq or Syria, but later clarified his statement to mean not another "Iraq-style invasion." 

Carter also said that "boots on the ground" is not a "new fact." 

"Boots on the ground, per se, is not at all a new fact, given that, what I just said — which is in just one country, namely Iraq, but a very important one, there are, actually a little bit more than 3,500 U.S. troops." 

The Pentagon has also acknowledged that some of those troops have already conducted combat operations, such as the hostage rescue raid in northern Iraq in late October. 

While there are 3,550 U.S. troops are currently in Iraq, the Pentagon says the number may change to account for the roughly 200 special operations forces conducting raids in Iraq and Syria. 

"We've already indicated some things we might do in the future that could be additive to that, that could include ... this expeditionary targeting force, which we're still working the details out on," said Pentagon spokesman Navy Capt. Jeff Davis on Wednesday. 

Davis said a U.S. offer to deploy Apache helicopters to Iraq and U.S. advisers to assist Iraqi forces in retaking Ramadi could also affect those numbers. 

The defense secretary told lawmakers last week that the Apaches and advisers could help Iraqi forces retake Ramadi from ISIS, which would put them closer to ground combat. 

Carter urged Americans to think of those serving in the Middle East during the holidays. 

"Keep in mind they are there, they are on the ground, and they're protecting us while many Americans enjoy their holiday," he said.  

The possibility of having more U.S. troops in Iraq comes as the Obama administration has been looking to accelerate its campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). 

Part of Carter's trip was to discuss with U.S. military commanders and coalition partners in the region what more could be done.

"They're thinking about ways that we can continue to accelerate the campaign to defeat ISIL. We've been devising and executing such accelerating steps for some time now. We need more," he said, using an alternate acronym for ISIS.

Carter also acknowledged the terrorist group has spread beyond Iraq and Syria, despite the president's characterization last month that it had been contained in Iraq and Syria. 

"This has metastasized to other parts of the world including our own homeland," he said, according to Reuters. "But the defeat here in Syria and Iraq is necessary and we need to hasten that." 

-- Updated at 2:00 p.m.