It's tough to break down what the 4,000 U.S. troops have been doing since the war against ISIS kicked off nearly two years ago.
Officially, the U.S. Central Command says there are around 4,000 troops dedicated to fighting ISIS. These troops are spread throughout Syria and Iraq, and most of them — around 3,690 — are in Iraq. Of those troops in Iraq, nearly 3,000 of them are dedicated to supporting the Iraqi security forces, the U.S. Central Command told BuzzFeed News.
(The catch is that those numbers don't include military contractors — about 2,600 in Iraq alone, 1,500 of whom are U.S. citizens — but we won't go into that right now.)
Just mapping out who's doing what can be confusing at a glance:
• Some are helping the Kurdish peshmerga in Iraq.
• Others are working alongside Kurdish militias in Syria.
• Others still are helping Syrian rebel groups.
• There's the ones we mentioned who are continuing the long-running mission of rebuilding the Iraqi military.
• And yet another small cohort is raiding, killing, and capturing ISIS leaders throughout Iraq and Syria.
That's a lot of missions that all fit into the framework of "the war against ISIS."
The reality on the ground for U,S. troops is far more nuanced than Washington would like you to believe. Adding in the U.S. working as part of a coalition of 66 countries fighting ISIS doesn't help clarify things. (And that's not even going into the intelligence missions that are going on.)
“These neat categories, particularly taking very adaptable people in various categories and assigning them to limited roles, you have to ask yourself why on Earth would you do it that way?” said Tony Cordesman, a senior national security analyst at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies.
It’s a small “expeditionary targeting force” that Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced in December. That's the military-ese way of saying that the soldiers are responsible for raiding and capturing ISIS leaders, rescuing hostages and gathering intelligence on militants.
Not much has been said publicly about the small task force, which officially arrived in Iraq in January of this year and began conducting raids in February. But that they aren't just operating in Iraq: Commandos go after ISIS leaders “wherever we find them,” Carter said in January.
Technically, even the advisory troops spotted alongside Kurdish militias in Syria aren’t in a combat role. But, as Maj. Gen. Clay Hutmacher, the deputy commanding general of Army Special Operations, told BuzzFeed in April, "Anytime a soldier is deployed there are risks associated with operating in foreign lands. I don’t want to minimize risk associated to the deployment of soldiers around the world." But, he stressed, U.S. troops are not engaged in "combat operations" against ISIS.
By the Pentagon’s definition that's true: U.S. troops aren’t on a "combat mission." But that doesn’t mean they won’t find themselves in combat scenarios. Three U.S. soldiers have died fighting ISIS: U.S. Marine Staff Sgt. Louis Cardin, 27; Navy SEAL Petty Officer 1st class Charles Keating IV, 31; and Army Master Sgt. Joshua Wheeler, 39. All three men were killed in Iraq.
“That's a kind of circumstance we regret, but you can't say it's not a circumstance that cannot be expected in a circumstance where you have a dynamic battlefield, and we are participants in this,” Secretary Carter said when pressed why Keating was killed in combat, even when he was supposedly not on the “front line." Whatever that is.