The US combat role in Iraq officially ended in 2011, but that doesn’t mean that all American troops returned home. According to official US Defense Department numbers, between 3,500-3,600 soldiers remain in Iraq, though some experts suspect this number to be higher. US officials maintain that the troops only serve in an advisory role.
"I am very comfortable that our operational approach is the right one. In the end, Iraqi forces have to do the defeating, sustain the defeat," US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said in an interview with NBC News last week.
But speaking before the US Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Gen. Joe Dunford suggested that American troops are playing a much more active the role than the Pentagon has previously admitted.
"He was killed in combat, Senator," Dunford said when asked about Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Louis Cardin, who was killed by gunfire at an outpost in northern Iraq last month. Dunford said the same of Army Master Sgt. Joshua Wheeler, killed during a similar incident last October.
"When our [Joint Special Operations Command] troops conduct [counter-terrorism] missions in that part of the world, are they conducting combat operations?" Alaska Senator Dan Sullivan pressed.
"Why does the administration go through these crazy somersaults that the entire country knows is not correct to say our troops are not in combat when they’re in combat? The chairman of the Joint Chiefs just stated that pretty much everybody in the Middle East is in combat," Sullivan said.
"We know they’re in combat; why can’t we level with the American people and say they’re in combat?"
Secretary Carter continued with the verbal "somersaults" that Sullivan described. Saying that he agreed with Dunford’s assessment, he stressed that US troops are "not to try to substitute for local forces…but to try to get them powerful enough that they can expel ISIL with our support.
"And when we provide that support, we put people in harm’s way, we ask them to conduct combat actions."
On Tuesday, White House spokesman Josh Earnest reiterated President Barack Obama’s official stance.
"[US troops are] not in a combat role, but they are in a role that puts them in harm’s way," he said. "They are armed for combat. They are armed to defend themselves if necessary. But the role that they have is to offer advice and assistance to forces on the ground fighting ISIL in their own country."