(Editor’s Note to Video Exclusive: War Reporter Alex Quade embedded with Special Forces Operational Detachment Teams in Diyala Province, Iraq, as they called in airstrikes with A10s and F16s in 2007 and 2008, and advised as many as 1400 Iraqis on missions. Quade is able to release this exclusive video now, because special operations taking place and the process for calling in airstrikes for Operation Inherent Resolve are different from what she witnessed firsthand — as you’ll be able to compare to her article on the current situation below. Per embed guideline, in Quade’s video: no full names, aircraft tail numbers or locations released; nor full facial footage of Operators revealed. Special Operations Public Affairs Officers cleared every frame of Alex Quade’s footage. She received special permission from the Operators to show more of their faces, since many have retired.)
U.S. Special Operations Forces are in the fight in Iraq against ISIL (Islamic State), but not in the way you might think.
According to Gary Boucher, outgoing spokesperson at the Combined Joint Task Force for Operation Inherent Resolve — these Special Operations Forces (SOF) are currently partnered with Kurdish Regional Government Forces, Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service.
“The mission of the current SF forces in Iraq, as we discussed, they are in an advising role,” Boucher emailed from Iraq, after I called asking about the difference between missions I’d covered as an embedded reporter with Special Forces during Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF), versus the current Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR).
“They are providing support in the planning of operations but not taking part in those operations. Unlike your previous experience working with SF forces, they are not on the front line calling in CAS [close air support],” Boucher said.
The current coalition air campaign in Iraq is being conducted in a circuitous way — by, with, and through Iraq security forces. The Joint Terminal Air Controller (JTAC) now sits in a Combined Joint Operations Center (CJOC), coordinating information received from Iraqi security forces on the ground with his or her Iraqi counterpart.
“When information that may lead to an airstrike is received in the CJOC, a careful process is initiated to validate the target and mitigate the potential for collateral damage. This process is a joint venture between coalition and Iraqi security forces,” Boucher said.
“There are no U.S. military JTACs embedded with Iraqi troops calling in close air support on the frontlines,” Army Maj. Curt Kellogg, a U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) public affairs officer confirmed. CENTCOM oversees U.S. military operations in that part of the world.
This process is different from what I witnessed firsthand while embedded with various Special Forces Operational Detachment Alphas — or “A-teams” — who were advising as many as 14-hundred Iraqi Police during a single mission, before the U.S. officially withdrew its troops in 2011. Back then, Air Force Special Operations JTACs, attached to Green Beret A-teams, with eyes on the target — were the direct link to close air support assets such as A10s and F16s — as you’ll see in the exclusive video attached.
One thing has not changed: A10s and F16s are still among the assets currently conducting air strikes in Iraq, as Lt. Gen. James L. Terry, the Task Force’s commander, confirmed.
“We will relentlessly pursue Daesh in order to degrade and destroy its capabilities and defeat their efforts,” Lt. Gen. Terry said, using the Arabic name for the Islamic State, which the Pentagon recently began using in press conferences.
To date, there have been 916 airstrikes in Iraq since the campaign started Aug. 8, 2014, with 12 airstrikes since the New Year.
At the Pentagon, Rear Adm. John Kirby, Pentagon Press Secretary confirmed that since mid-November, targeted coalition airstrikes successfully killed multiple senior and mid-level leaders within the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
“We believe that the loss of these key leaders degrades ISIL’s ability to command and control current operations against Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), including Kurdish and other local forces in Iraq,” Kirby said.
He would not discuss intelligence gathering and targeting details of the operations.
“The success of these airstrikes demonstrates the coalition’s resolve in enabling the ISF to disrupt and degrade ISIL as they continue to regain control of their territory,” Kirby added.
Iraq’s Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, in an editorial published in The Wall Street Journal in December, wrote that Iraqi Security Forces and their partners are pushing forward, recapturing strategic roads and other locations and liberating entire towns — with support from the international coalition and closer coordination with Kurdish Peshmerga fighters.
“Iraqis are doing our part to defeat the best-funded, best-equipped, and best-organized terrorists on Earth. But the challenge is greater than any country can answer alone,” Prime Minister al-Abadi stated.
“We need air support, training and armaments for Iraq’s security forces. We need our neighbors and allies to stop the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq. And we need the international community, through its financial institutions, to freeze the funding of Islamic State,” al-Abadi added.
While the Combined Joint Task Force confirmed that U.S. Special Operations Forces are partnering with the Iraqi Security Forces — security is such a concern for these Operators in country, that it will not release specific unit identifications or affiliations — such as SEALs, Green Berets, Air Force Special Tactics Squadron members, etc.
“For operational security reasons, we are unable to provide specific locations – size and composition of individual advise and assist elements working with ISF,” Army Maj. Tiffany Bowens, the spokesperson for Special Operations Command Central (SOCCENT)/Combined Joint Interagency Task Force-Syria emailed, when I asked about Green Beret A-teams. SOCCENT is the Special Operations component of CENTCOM.
“SOF Advisory Teams in Iraq, are composed of personnel from the U.S. Special Operations Command assigned Joint Forces with operational control to USCENTCOM,” Maj. Bowens added.
On an editorial sidebar note — while the situation with SOF Advisory Teams is very different in Iraq today, it is worth revisiting past special operations missions, and interviews I conducted previously in Iraq, for insight and context to the current situation Special Operators find themselves.
While we have 20/20 vision in hindsight, when I was embedded with Special Forces A-teams in 2007 and 2008, all the indicators were there of what would happen if the U.S. and the government of Iraq failed in its mission then.
“We may not have been able to identify the ISIL threats, but we knew that pulling U.S. support and/or the sectarian divide would in the long term impact the outcomes,” the former commander of the Special Forces company I covered said recently when I mentioned my video would finally release. Due to the extra security concerns with the Islamic State, and because of his position now with SOCCENT, he asked that I not use his full name or current rank, but refer to him as “Maj. Derek,” his rank from when I was embedded with each of his A-teams.
Maj. “Derek” and I recently reviewed the interview I conducted with him after the mission shown in my video. Even back then, the Special Forces Advisors were concerned about the potential rise of a Caliphate, as his quotes during my 2007 interview show. At that time, the Special Forces Advisors were making headway.
“How do you think people will look back at this, five to 10 years from now?” I asked in 2007.
“I think it will really depend on how well we and the Government of Iraq exploit this opportunity that has emerged as the Iraqi Sunnis have effectively turned against Al Qaeda. This has changed the entire dynamics on the ground, and has really turned the tide of the war in our favor. We are witnessing the potential strategic defeat of Al Qaeda by the very population that needed them the most—the Iraqi Sunnis,” Maj. “Derek” said then.
Few insurgencies survive without effective external support. At the time, the Iraqi Sunnis had largely depended on Al Qaeda in Iraq for their external support to their insurgency; support which included money, foreign fighters, suicide bombers, and coordination and leadership, as well as connection to the Al Qaeda core leadership.
Maj. “Derek” continued, bringing up the Caliphate.
“I use the word ‘strategic defeat’ on purpose, because a defeat in Iraq for Al Qaeda, in the heart of the Arab world, and currently [in 2007] the only location outside of Afghanistan that involved U.S. forces in large numbers, the U.S. being Al Qaeda’s ‘far enemy,’ would severely impact their long-term strategy of re-establishing the Caliphate. A strategic defeat in Iraq, that honestly was looking like a potential win for them just a few months ago, would make it difficult for them recover short of some unforeseen success that would keep them moving positively towards the re-establishment of the Caliphate. A few months ago, Iraq looked like it would potentially result in the first major foothold for Al Qaeda’s Caliphate goal; currently it looks like we have successfully turned the tide. Hopefully we can keep the positive momentum going for the next decade and ensure Al Qaeda is unable to establish a foothold in the region,” Maj. “Derek” said to me then.
Maj. “Derek” explained to me that the Sunnis turning on Al Qaeda at the time, showing that classic counterinsurgency principles still apply — that you can’t kill your way to victory — and that it really takes the isolation of the insurgency from the population, followed by a true political solution that meets the critical grievances of the disaffected populations.
“The complexity of the sectarian issues in Iraq makes it tough to project outcomes 5-10 years into the future. We could kill all of the key Al Qaeda leaders in Iraq, but if we don’t isolate the insurgency from the population and external support and starve it, we and the Iraqi government won’t be successful,” Maj. “Derek” projected.
While that was 2007, the Special Forces lessons still apply in Iraq today.