Operation Inherent Resolve has been largely reported as a special operations effort to stop ISIS’ progress in Iraq and assist the Iraqis in taking the offense against them. Not counting the significant Navy and Air Force conventional forces supporting Operation Inherent Resolve, the surprising and largely unreported truth is the majority of ground troops committed to Iraq are not special operations forces but conventional ones! Actually, since we started our return to Iraq the deployment of troops has largely favored conventional troops.
After analyzing the deployments of the last year, the difference between what has been reported by the media and the government and what’s on the ground will be obvious. That begs the question, why? Why are the reports of who we are sending to Iraq differ so much from what America is being told? Further, why are conventional troops taking such a leading role in training a foreign military again?
A timeline and analysis of the types of US troop deployed in support of Operation Inherent Resolve in 2014:
June 16: A week after ISIS took Mosul and Tikrit the President ordered 275 troops to protect the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, most likely Marines from the 22nd MEU. The 22nd MEU had been on amphibious ships in the region since February and Marines are traditional tasked with the protection of US embassies. These troops joined about 160 troops already in Iraq (50 Marines and a little over 100 soldiers).
June 19: 300 military advisors are dispatched to advise Iraqi forces at joint operating centers in Baghdad and in Irbil. A contingent of this group were six Special Forces teams tasked to conduct an assessment of the Iraqi Army. It would be expected that the majority of troops operating in joint operations centers (which typically control large formations of troops from brigade to corps size) would largely be conventional forces and their supporting elements. Senior ranking conventional officers, their staffs and supporting troops (e.g. communications) would be accustomed to coordinating, synchronizing and logistically supplying the Iraqi conventional forces in the field as well as the big picture planning necessary to facilitate the employment of air strikes. Given that kind of a mission breakdown it would be safe to say there were 100 Special Forces troops (six twelve man assessment teams though they were likely smaller and 12-24 special operations troops split between the two joint headquarters) and 200 conventional soldiers.
June 30: 300 additional troops are dispatched to reinforce security at U.S. installations in Baghdad. Obama described these troops as “intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance support” and included six Apache helicopters and Shadow UAV’s. The Apaches and Shadow UAV’s came out of the Army brigade deployed to Kuwait in Feb as part of a rotational force maintained in the region. These three hundred troops would almost exclusively be conventional troops considering the manning requirements for an Apache helicopter company and support, drone operators and support, security for the Baghdad airport and other security requirements.
August 12: 130 military advisers fly into Iraq to assess the humanitarian crisis at Mt. Sinjar and develop a plan to evacuate Yazidis trapped on the mountain. Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren, described a force consisting of approximately four Ospreys, an unspecified number of other U.S. helicopters that transported the troops, a force including about 80 Marines. Simple math dictates that the total force consisted of about 50 special operations troops though this operation was consistently described as a special operations mission. It is worth noting Marines routinely conduct noncombatant evacuations and the 22nd MEU on the ships of the USS Bataan’s group have 12 MV-22B Ospreys, four CH-53E Super Stallions, three UH-1Y Venom helicopters and four AH-1W Cobra helicopters.
September 2: 350 troops deployed to Iraq as per a State Department request for additional protection for U.S. personnel and facilities in Baghdad. The Pentagon statement stated the troops “will come from within the U.S. Central Command area of operations and will include a headquarters element, medical personnel, associated helicopters and an air liaison team.” Of 1,100 troops in Iraq up to this point 820 are providing security at U.S. Embassy and airport in Baghdad and the Consulate in Irbil. That’s 75% of the force dedicated to security. While some of these may be special operations troops the majority are not as well as a percentage of the troops not assigned a security mission for the reasons described previously.
September 10: 475 more troops authorized to deploy to Iraq. Soldiers from the 1st Infantry Division Headquarters are targeted for the deployment. They will perform command and control function for US forces in Iraq and be operating out of Baghdad and Irbil.
December 20: As part of a 1500 troop increase announced on 7 November 320 Marines from the Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF) assigned to the U.S. Central Command were tasked to conduct an advise and assist mission at al-Asad airbase west of Baghdad.. The Marines are training units from Iraq’s 7th Division. Simultaneously, 175 1st Infantry Division soldiers from Fort Riley were conducting similar training at Camp Taji 20 miles north of Baghdad. They are training Infantry and tank crews in a compressed 6-week basic training course for Iraqi recruits assisting in standing up several new Iraqi battalions. According to Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren there are approximately 2,140 troops in Iraq. About 800 of those troops are engaged in providing security and force protection, and 1340 are executing the training, advising and assisting role. Just the 10 September and 20 December deployments of conventional troops account for 970 troops of the 1340. That’s approximately 82% of the ground element of Operation Inherent Resolve consisting of conventional troops.
That does not include the 1000 troops from the 82nd Airborne’s 3rd Brigade Combat Team slated to deploy in January for the Iraq train, advise and assist mission. That would boost the percentage of conventional troops to almost 90% of the “boots on the ground” in Iraq.
The stark difference in representation and the specific roles assigned to conventional troops begs two questions. First, why is the press and the administration and military representing Operation Inherent Resolve as a primarily a special operations initiative? Next, why are conventional troops being pressed into being the primary trainers of the new Iraqi Army?
Some of the misreporting of who’s actually in Iraq can be attributed to ignorance. Remember we have media that refers to armored cars being used by police as “tanks” and misidentifies orange foam earplugs with rubber bullets. Most reporters, even those assigned to report on defense issues are woefully ignorant about the military they report on.
That said, what’s the military’s and administration’s reason for misreporting? Well, the military is subordinate to the administration. It’s rare to find a General that would contradict the administration’s talking points. Sad but too unfortunately true. So what’s the motivation to portray conventional troops as predominately special operations? The payoff is its subliminal messaging.
Portraying our current involvement as primarily special operations creates some distance in public perception with our previous experience in Iraq. It also lends credence to the often stated canard of “no boots on the ground”. The administration moves the goal posts by implying since the troops are “special ops” there are no boots on the ground because that would be conventional troops.
Further the public is enamored with our highly capable special operations forces that have generally not been held responsible for the results we’ve seen in Iraq and Afghanistan. That helps create a false sense of confidence in the public of a future success. Sadly, the special operations community is accepting risk for the short term benefit of supporting the narrative that special operations can in many cases be deployed instead of conventional forces. A narrative embraced by the current administration and a sure path to continued funding levels for the special operations community which has been left largely unscathed during our current defense cost cutting measures. When Iraq goes bad, and it will, the military and the special operations community run a real risk of being held responsible.
For the record, I’m a special operations fan and supporter. They just aren’t capable of doing everything which leads us into why conventional troops are taking such a leading role in training a foreign military, again. Today over 80% of the troops training, advising and assisting the Iraqi military are conventional troops. The plan is to train nine Iraqi army brigades and three Peshmerga brigades at four training sites according to Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby.
Why aren’t special operations troops doing the training mission predominately? Well the often unstated reasons are twofold. First we don’t have enough special operations troops and historically (especially since Vietnam) our special operations forces typically train indigenous irregular and special operations troops. Training large formations of indigenous troops that must not only conduct offensive operations but also defensive ones isn’t a special operations forte.
There has also been a propensity since 911 for special operations to embrace the direct action role than conduct pure training missions. Even the indigenous forces trained by special ops troops are typically led by their trainers in real world direct action type missions well after they have completed their training. It’s a technique special operations forces use to make up for their lack of bulk when the mission requires a lot of troops.
Some will have fears that “our conventional troops are not up to the task which is why Iraq is where it is today”. CSM Micahel Grinston, the senior enlisted NCO at Camp Taji repeats a message I’ve stated before. The way we trained the Iraqi military wasn’t done poorly. The problem, he believes, was that after U.S. forces withdrew, training was not properly maintained. Something we could have done had we maintained a residual force in Iraq.
The near term prognosis for Iraq is cloudy. Gen Ordierno, the US Army’s Chief of Staff is looking at an offensive to recapture some of ISIS’ territory in the summer using two Iraqi divisions that will undergo training this summer. He’s hoping the Iraqis will allow these better trained, experienced and equipped Iraqi forces currently defending Baghdad to go on the offensive and be replaced by the troops being trained now. The question has been raised if US troops will be allowed to accompany Iraqi troops in the offense. The US military says it will be prepared to do what is necessary. The administration continues to reiterate that we will not put US troops in a combat role in Iraq. Given the history of portraying the current operation in Iraq as a special operations initiative when it’s clearly not demonstrates we have a precedent for doing things in Iraq and describing them as something else.
In the meantime, Iran continues to grow its influence and credit for saving Iraq . When we sent 275 troops to defend the US Embassy in June, Iran sent 2,000 Quds troops to protect Baghdad. No one knows what will happen as we wait for the Iraqis to increase their combat capability. ISIS is recruiting in Afghanistan, a cell has been arrested in Israel and they are present in Yemen as that government has fallen. On the positive side, a summer offensive will be six months closer to Inauguration Day 2017. Reaching that date with no greater degradation of the situation in Iraq has always been the real strategy directing our actions in Iraq where a real effort to roll back ISIS would need 15k US troops according to some.