On December 17th 2014 there was a brief battle in Iraq between American troops and ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). The Islamic terrorists lost and retreated after taking heavy losses from American ground troops and air attack. This made the news because there were a lot of journalists there (at the Ein al Asad airbase in western Iraq). This was reported as the first ground combat between American troops and Islamic terrorists in Iraq since American troops left in 2011. That is not exactly true, but it’s the story the U.S. government wants told. Since 2011 there have been hundreds of U.S. troops in Iraq, all embassy personnel (so they have diplomatic immunity) helping with training their Iraqi counterparts. But there have been unofficial visits by American troops, who did not have diplomatic immunity and which the U.S. government kept very secret, especially from the Iraqi government. These troops were usually in northern, Kurdish controlled, Iraq. The Kurds had unofficially (because they did not, technically, have the authority to do so) granted the Americans immunity from prosecution. American troops have been in this part of Iraq, often “unofficially” since 1991 and the Kurds appreciate the presence of the Americans has it has helped keep the Islamic terrorists, and Iraqi Arabs in general, out of the north. Iraqi Arabs are welcome, if they come to visit, do business or otherwise carry out peaceful endeavors. The Kurds have managed to keep the terrorist out and the Americans around and the Iraqis down south have noticed how well that works.
This brings us back to the December battle at Ein al Asad, where there were only about a hundred American troops at a base used by thousands of Iraqi troops. The base was deep in ISIL controlled territory and have been surrounded by ISIL for months. Supplies were brought in by air and the American had recently arrived to help train and advise as well as call in air strikes. To the Iraqis the Americans were also sort of good luck charm. To the average Iraqi soldier their American counterparts were masterful warriors who never lost.
The majority of Iraqis did not want the U.S. troops to leave in 2011, but their leaders did not agree because the Americans were always pestering the politicians and officials to be more efficient and less corrupt. Iraqi troops now believe the Americans leaving allowed the Iraqi politicians to destroy the pretty efficient army that had been built between 2003 and 2011. So the presence of so few American troops was good for morale and, since many of the American were special operations types, there were efforts to make sure security around the base was working and, when the ISIL gunmen were spotted approaching in the darkness (the Americans make heavy use of night vision devices) the Americans helped to quickly organize a formidable defense, which was reinforced by American bombers overhead taking out ISIL mortars and armored vehicles. The Islamic terrorists were soon in retreat and more Iraqis became convinced that the key to success was to have a few American troops around.
Meanwhile the Iraq government asked for more U.S. warplanes. The U.S. policy is to keep the number of warplanes where it is for the moment until the Iraqi army is ready to launch a major offensive. Then the U.S. airplane strength would be increased. American commanders handling retraining of Iraqi troops said that offensive won’t take place until early 2015. Another American policy is to not, under any circumstances, have Americans fighting on the ground. Most of the 4,600 American troops in Iraq are there to train Iraqis or guard the embassy and the Baghdad airport. Unofficially a growing number of American troops in Iraq are fighting, either as part of SOCOM (Special Operations Command) actions or a growing number of air controller teams that are officially not in action (except occasionally with the Kurds) with Iraqi troops but increasingly are. The American government is obsessed with there being no American casualties in Iraq, especially in ground combat. Commanders are warned that their careers are on the line with this. In other words, commanders can put their troops in harm’s way, but if any of them are hurt there will be career consequences.