By John M. Doyle
As U.S.-led coalition air raids continue to pound territory held by the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the Iraqi military has begun making inroads against the terrorist organization, which seized huge areas of northern Iraq and Syria just two years ago.
The Iraqi army collapsed in the summer of 2014 in the face of an ISIL offensive, abandoning millions of dollars in weaponry, most of it supplied by the United States. Corruption, incompetent leadership and ongoing political divides between Sunni and Shia Muslim factions in Iraq’s government were blamed for the disaster. The rout gave ISIL an arsenal of heavy weapons, including tanks, to extend their reign of terror across northern and western Iraq and northeastern Syria. The cities of Tikrit, Mosul, Fallujah and Ramadi eventually fell to ISIL.
But in a little over a year, Iraqi security forces have been trained by U.S. and coalition partners in infantry tactics and small arms competency, as well as in classes to instill a will to fight. In December they re-captured Ramadi, seized by ISIL in May 2015. Hit, captured by the terror group in October 2014, was also liberated by the Iraqi military this past April.
Through the coalition’s train-and-equip efforts, 20,000 Iraqi Security Forces have been trained and given the weapons, technology and supplies to equip six full army brigades, Defense Secretary Ash Carter told the Senate Armed Services Committee April 28. “And we’ve provided two brigade sets to the Peshmerga (Kurdish militia), part of more than 12 million pounds of critical supplies donated by more than 20 countries,” Carter said. Those supplies included ammunition, small, medium and heavy weapons as well equipment to counter the threat of roadside bombs and booby traps, known as improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
A U.S. soldier explains movement techniques and squad-level tactics to Iraqi army soldiers at a training area on Camp Taji, Iraq, March 24, 2015. The U.S. soldier is assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division’s 3rd Brigade Combat Team. U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Cody Quinn
Foreign Internal Defense, teaching a country’s military how to defend itself, has generally been a mission for Special Operations Forces, particularly U.S. Army Special Forces—the Green Berets—who have deep language and cultural expertise, as well as experience in various world regions. But the Iraqi training mission has seen soldiers with skill sets ranging from tank crews of the 1st Infantry Division’s 2nd Armored Brigade to paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division. The trainers have been showing Iraqi troopers how to don gas masks, set up a recoilless rifle tripod, maneuver an M1A1 Abrams tank at night or fire an M-16 assault rifle through small openings and from behind large structures.
While the United States has more than 3,000 troops in Iraq, most but–not all—are trainers and advisers. The effort is part of a bigger international operation
to eliminate ISIL as a threat in the Middle East and Central Asia. Operation Inherent Resolve involves a coalition of nations that includes NATO partners like Britain, France and the Netherlands as well as Persian Gulf states like Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. NATO is training several hundred Iraqi officers in neighboring Jordan.
Iraqi army soldiers look on as U.S. soldiers discuss movement techniques and squad-level tactics at a training area on Camp Taji, Iraq, March 24, 2015. The U.S. soldiers are assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division’s 3rd Brigade Combat Team, and the Iraqi soldiers are assigned to the 73rd Brigade, 15th Division.
Danish, Dutch, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, Australian and New Zealand soldiers have been among the troops training the Iraqis in 2016. For the past three years, Spanish “Green Berets” of the Special Operations Command, have been training the Iraqi Army’s special operators in counter-terrorism and emergency response.
Since April 2015, more than 5,000 members of the Iraqi Security Forces have been trained by 300 Australian and 100 New Zealand troops forming a combined mission called Task Group Taji. The task group provides training on weapons handling, combat first aid, live fire training, clearing buildings, obstacle breaching techniques, counter-IED techniques, map reading, tactics and techniques for squad- up to company-level operations, marksmanship and team leadership. All ISF members are also taught the fundamental aspects of international human rights law and the Law of Armed Conflict, according to the New Zealand Defence Force.
The fight against ISIL isn’t confined to Syria and Iraq. Afghanistan’s National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) still face a significant insurgency complicated by a number of extremist elements in the region – not just the Taliban and al Qaeda but the Haqqani Network and the newly formed ISIL entity, ISIL-Khorasan Province, Gen. Lloyd Austin, then-commander of U.S. Central Command told the Armed Services Committee in March.
U.S. special operations forces (SOF), aligned Coalition SOF are advising Afghan Special Security Forces (ASSF) on critical needs like aviation, logistics, intelligence fusion, and command and control. While the force has drawn down, SOF presence remains robust in order to advise the ASSF, a critical component of the Afghan government’s ability to maintain a
sustainable security apparatus. The NATO Special Operations Component Command- Afghanistan/Special Operations Joint Task Force-Afghanistan (NSOCC-A/SOJTF-A) has five Special Operations Advisory Groups (SOAGs) focused on mentoring and advising ASSF partners to ensure they can command, control, maintain, and sustain their tactical units spread across the country, according to the new head of U.S. Special Operations Command, Army Gen. Raymond “Tony” Thomas.
There are 9,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan through the end of 2016, when they will be drawn down to 5,500 by January 1, 2017. Keeping those troop levels will allow U.S. forces to tailor their “train, advise and assist efforts [and] continue developing key ANDSF capabilities in critical areas such as aviation and special operations while also maintaining a U.S. capability to deter threats in the region,” Christine Abizaid, the deputy assistant Defense Secretary for Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia, told a House Armed Services Committee panel in February.