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This Is What The U.S. Is Really Doing In The Ground War Against ISIS

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.

Posted on June 6, 2016, at 3:58 p.m. ET

Ask people in Washington right now about U.S. troops in Syria, and you’ll get a whole swath of different answers.

John Moore / Getty Images

There are boots on the ground, some say. They’re in combat, they’re nowhere near the frontline, they’re losing in Syria, they’re helping our allies, there are too few, there are too many, there are nowhere near enough.

People have been trying to figure out just what the U.S. is doing on the ground against ISIS since President Obama first announced that U.S. soldiers would be going back to Iraq in 2014.

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At the time, it was a small force of 400 to add to the protection of the U.S. Embassy. But that number has continued to climb over time as new missions were added on as the months passed.

This has all come to the forefront in recent days after photos emerged depicting U.S. troops on the ground aiding Kurdish fighters in Syria, far closer to actually fighting ISIS than the Pentagon has ever suggested they are.

Delil Souleiman / AFP / Getty Images

So we're going to try to break it down for you in a way that at least sort of makes sense.

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Fact: There are as of now around 4,000 troops devoted to fighting against ISIS. Most of them are training Iraqi security forces.

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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.)

Fact: Even though most U.S. forces deployed are tasked with training Iraqi security forces, there's actually a lot of different jobs being done.

Ahmad Al-rubaye / AFP / Getty Images

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."

Fact: A lot of those missions overlap and that makes it hard to break down exactly who is doing what.

John Moore / Getty Images

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.

Fact: The Defense Department says "fewer than 50" U.S. troops are actually playing offense against ISIS.

Marijan Murat / AFP / Getty Images

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.

Fact: Even though most of the troops aren't officially considered "combat roles," some have died in combat and the White House has had trouble explaining that.

Delil Souleiman / AFP / Getty Images

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.

It's super confusing to be honest, even for people who have been watching closely, and it's at least a little on purpose on the part of the U.S. government. “You’re trying to describe a kaleidoscope and somebody keeps moving it,” Cordesman said.


A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.