U.S. readies advisory mission in Iraq. But what will it look like?


Mehdi Army fighters loyal to Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr march during a military-style training in Najaf, Iraq, on Friday. Iraqi forces were massing north of Baghdad on Friday, aiming to strike back at Sunni Islamists whose drive toward the capital prompted the United States to send military advisers to stiffen government resistance. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani

Iraq is getting a fresh influx of up to 300 U.S. troops. And while they “will not be returning to combat,” as President Obama said Thursday, they will be taking on a role advising their Iraqi counterparts from the sidelines.

What’s that mean exactly?

Special Operations troops say a big part of the job will likely be providing command-and-control expertise, along with advice on how to integrate ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) feeds to allow for better intelligence-sharing.

Command-and-control entails using service members assigned to use communications gear to connect combat troops with higher command, while ISR refers to various forms of intelligence-gathering, whether it be drones, communication intercepts or human intelligence.

While the type of units deploying to Iraq have yet to be named, some are watching for Army Special Forces as well as some other Special Operations units.

“Army Special Operations Forces is the dominant component under SOCOM in terms of numbers,” said a current Army Special Forces non-commissioned officer, referring to Special Operations Command. “I think the effort is going to be led by [Army Special Operations] leadership and at lower levels you’re going to have some Marine Special Operation Units and some SEALS.”

While Obama alluded to the possibility of airstrikes in the future against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the officer speculated that the mission is more likely to begin by emulating the U.S. Special Operations missions being carried out in the Philippines.

While American advisers have been in that country for more than a decade, they have stayed mostly out of combat by providing their Filipino counterparts with American-staffed command operation centers from behind friendly lines.

“I see it looking like a Philippine model in the beginning, but I see it creeping towards a combat support role,” said the anonymous Special Forces member, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

A senior-ranking staff non-commissioned officer who works in the Marine Corps’ Special Operations component agreed that the initial advising mission might look like the one currently playing out in the Philippines. But he added that Iraqi forces were not well-equipped to handle a paramilitary force like ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

“We trained [the Iraqis] for counter-insurgency,” he said. “Not for fighting a standup force.”

If Obama does authorize airstrikes, it will mean putting Americans that much closer to the enemy, as precision airstrikes, especially those in populated areas, require troops on the ground to “control” the aircraft dropping the ordinance. This usually means talking to the pilots over radio, identifying the target either with a ground laser or GPS coordinates and making sure the bomb drops on target. Very rarely are fixed-wing airstrikes authorized without some sort of ground element verifying the target.

On Thursday, Obama emphasized his commitment to intelligence-gathering, saying “because of our increased intelligence resources, we’re developing more information about potential targets associated” with ISIS.

The Army Special Forces member said he believes that gathering enough intelligence to attack the enemy, whether from the ground or air, will mean Special Operation forces will have to interact with locals, thus putting them that much closer to the fight.

“The mission has generated a lot of excitement in the [Army Special Forces] community, because it’s one of those once in a decade missions that is uniquely set up for Army Special Forces,” he said. “Like early Iraq and early Afghanistan.”

Thomas Gibbons-Neff is a Washington Post contributor and a former U.S. infantry Marine.
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