Delta Force freed 70 hostages — but no one knows the real motive that prompted the Pentagon to put “boots on the ground” again.

U.S. and Iraqi special forces have rescued dozens of hostages detained by the Islamic State in Iraq, after having learned of their “imminent mass execution,” according to the Pentagon’s report. Seventy men, for the most part Iraqi Sunnis, were liberated during the operation, which took place near the city of Hawija in northern Iraq.

The raid was carried out around 4 a.m. local time, when the prison at which the men were being detained was attacked. This triggered a firefight that claimed an undetermined number of victims — thought to be around 20 — among the militants, killed an American soldier and left three Kurds seriously wounded. Delta Force, the U.S. Army’s special operations forces, along with Kurdish special forces, took off from Erbil military base aboard five helicopters. The soldiers occupied the area for more than 15 minutes, liberating the hostages and taking into custody a few dozen prisoners, thought to be possible spies.

This was not about freeing Kurdish hostages, as rumors had initially indicated — news which had originally circulated, possibly because the operation took place in Kirkuk province, where the Kurdish forces are based and where the “border” between the caliphate and Iraqi Kurdistan can be found, already the scene of numerous battles. It is more likely to be about ex-Islamic State group militants, and therefore Sunnis, who had been imprisoned for having defected or, according to the BBC, simply because they had “defied orders of their IS leaders.” However, this is yet to be confirmed.

Mystery over the Real Motive

An air of mystery surrounds the campaign. It is true the Americans have accustomed us to raids and that this type of maneuver is in line with the Pentagon’s modus operandi. However, it is remarkable for the Department of Defense to put its own elite forces at such high risk in order to free a group of Iraqi prisoners of war.

Over the years of this war, there have been dozens of stories concerning defectors and the execution of traitors from among the fighters’ ranks, and certainly this won’t be the last. Up until now, no eyebrow has been raised over this type of event, which, unfortunately and inevitably, occurs during every war. So why does Washington consider this group of prisoners to be so different from the others? Was there someone so important among them as to require “boots on the ground”? Someone worth the price of risking the first American casualty in a firefight on Iraqi soil since the U.S. troop withdrawal in 2011?

The official version denies there were American or European hostages. And there is no talk of freed Kurds, despite the joint intervention with Kirkuk special forces. Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook attempted to provide a plausible explanation with this concise statement: “This operation was deliberately planned and launched after receiving information that the hostages faced imminent mass execution,” adding that “this was a unique circumstance” and that “I wouldn't suggest you should look at this as some change in tactics on our part.”

Nonetheless, the on-the-ground intervention is a partial contradiction of the inflexible line pursued by the White House, which has been careful, up to now, to not overly involve itself in the conflict. The Daily Beast has been harshest in its criticism, defining the raid as “the latest game of military semantics in a war defined as much by its messaging as by its tactical results.” President Obama, a supporter of withdrawal at any cost and notoriously hostile to marshaling troops in the field, did not comment.

US Soldiers in Iraq

Currently, 3,000 American soldiers are stationed in Iraq, personnel the Pentagon sometimes defines as “trainers” and sometimes as military “advisers,” both to the Kurds and to the Iraqi army, but who are never officially engaged in combat.

It is odd that the raid occurred as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was giving her testimony before a congressional committee on the Benghazi "affair," an affair that cost American Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens his life on Sept. 11, 2012 in Libya. It is also odd that the raid occurred on the eve of major Swiss talks, given that on Saturday, Oct. 24* a meeting is due to take place in Vienna between the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, precisely in order to discuss Syria and the Islamic State group.

In any case, coincidence or not, perhaps there really is no mystery, and this is just the latest example of the vacillating, uncertain, fruitless, paradoxical, incoherent and indecisive attitude the U.S. Department of Defense has shown to this point regarding the Iraq dossier. A tactic that is as foolish as it is inane — Vladimir Putin recently affirmed that the U.S. has “mush for brains” — where strategy succumbs to spontaneous action, often more in response to American public opinion and bureaucratic restrictions around the rules of engagement, influences not really required and that come with particular objectives. Something which, it has to be said, has allowed Putin’s Russia to snatch leadership in the Middle East away from the United States.

*Editor's Note: This meeting was actually scheduled for Friday, Oct. 23.