U.S. forces have changed their rules of engagement in the fight against the Islamic State, allowing them to come closer to the front lines than ever before.
Traditionally, U.S. and European military advisers have not fought on the front lines in ISIS-dominant areas, but that changed recently when they embedded with forward-deployed Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and began the fight for west Mosul.
The new rules of engagement are the culmination of an increased U.S. presence that began during the fight for Mosul months ago. A crucial turning point came Dec. 26 when Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend increased U.S. force presence on the front lines of Mosul after the ISF suffered several ISIS counter-attacks, according to a report by the Associated Press. By the time eastern Mosul was liberated in January, American forces were a common sight in the streets.
“It changed the relationship,” Army Lt. Col. James Browning told the AP in an interview, regarding his relationship with his Iraqi colleagues. “It gives me a better understanding of how I can bring to bear the limited capabilities I have.”
The December directive, and another issued in the last few weeks, allows military advisers like Browning to operate with the ISF at the brigade level and provide direct artillery support and air strikes. Advisers can now avoid going through a central command center in Baghdad, and instead communicate directly with Iraqi commanders. Browning, for example, coordinated support for his Iraqi counterpart Brig. Gen. Walid Khalifa through simple phone calls.
U.S. military advisers have also been seen operating close to the front lines in Syria, where approximately 500 special operators are assisting the Syrian Democratic Forces.
Secretary of Defense James Mattis reportedly suggested restrictions on U.S. advisers may be further loosened as he prepares to present his counter-ISIS plan to President Donald Trump next week.
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