"There are no boots on the ground."
I don't care for the phrase. Never did. Wearing boots is what combat forces do in certain circumstances. Using it as synecdoche for "troops in harm's way" warps the scope of what the U.S. military does. It may also give the Pentagon an easy out, because certain forces wear sneakers, not boots.
A very brave Ford Sypher, writing for The Daily Beast, saw suspiciously Western-looking commandos race by him in their heavy trucks, and was given word by his Kurdish escorts that these were indeed foreigners:
Contacts in the Kurdish intelligence service and Peshmerga leadership confirmed what we saw. "Yes," one commander replied to our questions. "German and American forces are on the ground here. They are helping to support us in the attack." [The Daily Beast]
A spokesman for the Central Command denied this specifically. "There are no U.S. troops on the ground in or around Zumar," he said. But Sypher's Kurdish sources told him that one team of U.S. Special Operations Forces and several teams of German Kommando are on the ground to help coordinate airstrikes.
Whom to believe? Go with Sypher.
Why? Recall the NATO bombing in Libya and repeated denials from U.S. officials that troops weren't on the ground, and would not be on the ground.
But there were men and women employed and trained by the U.S. government inside Libya. They were engaged in paramilitary activities. They had guns. There were members of the Central Intelligence Agency's Special Activities Division (SAD) — about 40 of them. They worked with Libyan and ground-spotters from other NATO countries to help NATO fighters find their targets and help the CIA track high-value Libyan and foreign terrorists. These Americans were there on the legal authority of a covert action finding that President Obama signed, and then notified Congress about.
The CIA does not belong to the Department of Defense. But the Defense Intelligence Agency has a clandestine wing that can essentially exchange personnel with CIA teams, a practice known as sheep-dipping — they "become" CIA operatives for as long as they need to. There may also have been actual Special Operations Forces on the ground, perhaps members of the Joint Special Operations Command task force that specializes in operationally preparing the battlefield and whose very name is a classified code word. Its barely unclassified identity: "The Activity."
Any or all of these forces could be transferred to the CIA's commander on the ground. At that point, there technically would be no U.S. military forces underneath the air combat canopy; JSOC would simply loan 12 soldiers for a week, or however long it took.
In Iraq, right now, there are military trainers in Baghdad; the "trainers" are largely intelligence personnel, and many of them are tasked with helping the U.S. target ISIS encampments. Obama would probably have signed a covert action finding allowing the CIA to expand its presence in Iraq, something that would amount to a "significant intelligence activity" and thus require congressional notification.
The CIA's SAD, in turn, could partner with The Activity, as well as with the British Special Air Service Regiment, to gather signals and electronic intelligence from the ground, and to help Air Force and Navy combat planners select the right way to take out their targets.
The classified Special Operations units exist specifically for these types of missions. And to protect them, the Pentagon will absolutely tell a technical truth but a de facto lie to conceal an important mission.