May 4, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: Blurred Combat Lines in Iraq

• On May 3, a U.S. Navy SEAL was killed during an attack by the Islamic State, several kilometers behind Peshmerga lines north of Mosul

• In Iraq, both the combat lines and the combat roles for U.S. personnel are blurring, as they become increasingly involved in a fight that is entering a new stage

• Training and advisory remains the primary mission for U.S. forces, but that role is naturally evolving into assisting in direct combat as coalition forces move deeper into core Islamic State territory

• The air and artillery support provided by the U.S. will play an ever-larger role against the Islamic State, and it is likely that more U.S. personnel will be deployed to Iraq.


The reality of the fight against the so-called Islamic State in Iraq is impervious to the intentions of both the U.S. and Iraqi governments. A meaningful amount of progress has been made in halting and pushing back the terrorist group over the last year. However, the task of not only removing the group from Mosul and other strongholds, but also degrading its military capacity enough to keep it at bay during reconstruction efforts, is far beyond both current and planned capabilities. The cost of the current commitment, which is expanding in fits and starts as the scale of the task is better defined, rose again with the death of a U.S. serviceman north of Mosul on May 3.

A U.S. Navy SEAL was killed in direct combat with the Islamic State after the group attacked Peshmerga forces near the northern village of Telskuf. The attack involved Islamic State fighters following multiple car bombs, a devastating tactic against which even proper defenses struggle. The attack penetrated Peshmerga lines, and the U.S. Navy SEAL was killed by direct fire several kilometers behind the lines. The local troops with whom the U.S. forces—mostly Special Forces such as Delta and SEAL—are embedded are improving in their capabilities, but still have deficiencies and weaknesses. As the Iraqi and coalition forces press their advances, these weaknesses will become more apparent. As they delve further into core Islamic State territory, increased raids will result in attacks on all sides.

The blurring of the front lines is matched by the obscured responsibilities of U.S. forces. The primary role is dedicated to training and advising; in the case of embedded U.S. forces, this advisory support involves combat. However, as the lines shift, so will the reality of the mission, if not the stated purpose. Fire support in terms of artillery, among other capabilities, will not be the only components playing a larger role as Iraqi forces press their advance; other forces, such as the 200 U.S. Marines at Makhmour, will also have to adjust their role to the reality of the front lines. The Iraqis will need more combat support as they continue their offensive against the Islamic State, and U.S. forces will require increased combat support as well. 

As massive as the coming task will be, the U.S. will not be deploying even a fraction of the troops it maintained during the Iraq War and its aftermath. However, it will likely have to increase the level of combat troops, along with more air and artillery—above the estimated 4,700 soldiers already present in the country. Given that the official count does not include those temporarily assigned for short tours of duty, the actual number of U.S. military personnel and civilian contractors is likely higher, and will move higher still as force protection issues become more pressing. 

The ongoing and worsening political turmoil in Iraq may have some negative impact on the fight against the Islamic State, but perhaps not as much as initially feared. The actual fighting north of Mosul is distant from the political battles in the Green Zone, and that reality has been a problem for years. The disconnect between the central government and the rest of Iraq is profound. Issues of resupply and leadership, which have persisted for more than a decade, are being worked around with the assistance of the U.S., which is increasingly finding itself filling roles that Baghdad is unable to. This dynamic will continue as the fight continues; the U.S. will try to find a balance between providing increased assistance and committing to broader involvement once again.


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