Spare a prayer, if you can, for the Americans in Iraq this holiday season. It appears that at least some have been involved in ground fighting with ISIS in the past week. And the fact that we’re getting very little information about what’s going on is not a good sign.
Start with some context. First, keep in mind that U.S. operations in Iraq right now are peculiar. They are not the “normal” type of operations the American people have been accustomed to over the last 25 years. In some ways, they continue the weird methods used in Libya in 2011. A key example is the fact that U.S. forces are not using embedded tactical air controllers in Iraq, to guide close air support (CAS) aircraft operated by the U.S. Navy and Air Force. (Many strike-fighter missions are returning without expending any ordnance, in fact, because there is too little information about the ground situation to support in-air bombing decisions.)
Hundreds of uniformed American soldiers are now deployed to Iraqi force headquarters – in Baghdad, Irbil, and Anbar Province – but they are not allowed to operate with Iraqi troops in the field. This is taken to mean that they don’t set foot off the military bases in the hinterlands (Irbil, in Kurdish territory, and Anbar), at least not in an armed, tactical role. Obama and the DOD spokesmen have left a great deal open to interpretation in their statements on this matter, but the theme from the administration has been unvarying: we are not deploying “boots” into ground “combat” in Iraq.
Keep in mind also that the military didn’t choose the conditions it is operating in. Military planners have constructed none of the constraints that have led to the events of the past week. All the constraints were imposed on the military by the Obama administration. That includes the constraint of declining to be explicit about exactly what has happened, when reports emerge that U.S. forces were in a firefight with ISIS.
The initial report was from Tuesday, 16 December, in Iraqi news. (The incident reportedly took place on Sunday.) This report has gotten a lot of play in the conservative blogosphere, but less play in the mainstream media. The focus of Western bloggers has been on the 350 uniformed Americans who are now deployed to Al-Asad air base in Anbar Province, where the engagement is popularly understood to have occurred.
Three odd facts
But there are three interesting – illuminating – aspects of the event, none of which has gotten any traction in the blogosphere. One is that it didn’t actually occur at Al-Asad air base. According to the Iraqi report, it took place in the vicinity of Al-Dolab, a place name (not an inhabited town) some 6-7 miles northeast of the air base, on the other side of the Euphrates River. To fight there, the Americans involved would have had to be well outside the base. (See maps 1 and 2. Translation below is original from the English edition of Shafaq News.)
A field commander of the Iraqi Army in Anbar province, said that “the US force equipped with light and medium weapons, supported by fighter force model” F-18 “, was able to inflict casualties against fighters of ISIS organization, and forced them to retreat from the al-Dolab area, which lies 10 kilometers from Ain al-Assad base .
US troops have entered with its Iraqi partner, according to Colonel , Salam Nazim in line against ISIS elements and clashed with them for more than two hours, to succeed in removing them from al-Dolab area, and causing losses in their ranks, at a time American fighter jets directed several strikes focused on ISIS gatherings that silenced their heavy sources of fire.
The second interesting aspect is that, according to Stars and Stripes, U.S. military spokesmen who were asked about American troops being in a fight with “militants” said the reports were false:
On Tuesday, there were media reports that American troops in Anbar had been in a direct fight with militants near Al Asad. Multiple U.S. defense officials said those reports were false.
Military officials haven’t made a big point of this, however. You probably don’t even know that they denied the reports when asked about them earlier this week.
The third interesting aspect is that the Iraqi commander quoted in the Shafaq News report described the American force involved as a private force (emphasis added):
He added, “We have made progress in al-Dolab area, in which ISIS has withdrawn from to the villages beyond, after the battles which involved a private American force , and provided a great impetus firearm, and opened hubs around the region enabled them to storm and surprise ISIS fighters.
We are left to suspect that Americans did, in fact, engage with ISIS on Sunday, 14 December, but that they weren’t uniformed soldiers.
The contractor question
It’s an unanswerable question whether they were private contractors working at Al-Asad for the U.S. military. They could have been; in August, three days after the U.S. intervention began, the U.S. Army put out a call for bids on 12-month private-security contracts for a number of functions in support of Iraqi forces. Those functions were to include support for operations, as well as intelligence and logistics. (H/t: Stars and Stripes)
We have little visibility on the presence of private-security contractors in Iraq at this point, although Ann Scott Tyson at Warrior Scout recently profiled one company that is looking for experienced Special Forces operators to deploy to Iraq in early 2015. The qualities considered indispensable for prospective hires – such as a minimum of seven years’ service with a Special Forces Group – indicate pretty clearly that the job will entail ground combat.
U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), the 4-star command in charge of the U.S. military in the region, reports quarterly on the “census” of contractors in the region as a whole, and in the theaters of operations specifically. But its latest report, for the quarter ending on 30 September, offered no numbers for Iraq or Operation Inherent Resolve. The CENTCOM report merely stated that the next quarterly report (for the period ending 31 December 2014) would have figures for Iraq.
It’s conceivable – we simply don’t know – that American contract personnel are at Al-Asad under an agreement with the Iraqis. I tend to doubt it, in part because it remains unclear what the legal immunity status of American private-security contractors is in Iraq.
Our ambassador in Baghdad, Stuart Jones, told the media in early December that the former Maliki government had agreed in June 2014 to immunize U.S. troops in Iraq – the issue that readers will remember as the sticking point for a status-of-forces agreement (SOFA), which we were unable to conclude with the Iraqis back in 2011. But the long-running SOFA discussions didn’t involve immunizing contractors.
On the other hand, the October 2014 conviction of four Blackwater security contractors in U.S. federal court, in the killing of Iraqis during a tactical firefight in 2007, struck a chilling note for private-security contractors’ relations with the U.S. government. It may not necessarily be better, from an immunity standpoint, to be under contract to the U.S. Department of Defense as opposed to the Iraqi government.
This is no way to run a war, in case that’s not clear. There is close to zero visibility for the public – and we can’t tell how much there is for Congress – on what’s going on with private-security contract forces in Iraq. But now there’s a report that a “private American force” has been involved in a firefight with ISIS
Compare that appearance of furtiveness – of skirting the conventions of lawful combat and nation-state responsibility – with reports in recent years of the shadowy, suspicious presence of Russians and Iranians participating in military and security operations in Syria, or Chinese in Iran, or Chinese in the Democratic Republic of Congo, or North Koreans in Syria. One thing’s for sure: we can’t be accused of being exceptional, if we do the same cheap, underhanded crap as everyone else.
And that’s aside from the dubious position our contract personnel may be in, in Iraq. If they’re not supposed to be in actual combat, were they? And if so, why? What is their status as combatants? Honk if you think Obama has their back.
In the big middle in Anbar
There are reasons to be concerned about the overall situation in Anbar as well. The firefight on Sunday happened because the Iraqis are making a big push to beat back the ISIS advance in the region. All the attention this week has been focused on the Kurdish tactical victory up around Mount Sinjar. But ISIS is lurking just west of Baghdad – close enough since early fall to menace the Baghdad international airport – and controls much of the Euphrates corridor between Baghdad and the Syrian border. The Iraqi national forces are trying to take some of the Euphrates corridor back, relieve pressure on Baghdad, and ultimately deny ISIS its line of communication to Syria.
In the context of ISIS’s operational position in the Euphrates corridor, the presence of at least 350 uniformed Americans at Al-Asad air base creates a big, fat target, just in the area where ISIS is being given a counter-heave by the Iraqi forces. ISIS is making an effort to fight for the territory; the engagement at Al-Dolab on the 14th was part of that effort. The Iraqis reportedly rushed forces to the area within hours of that engagement, and on Wednesday, the head of the (Anbar) Awakening Council said Iraqi forces would prevent ISIS from making its way to the Al-Asad base.
But an additional report of U.S. forces participating in the fighting near Al-Asad emerged on Saturday the 20th, and seems to be a separate report, if we can judge by the reaction of the Pentagon. This report, from Al Jazeera, cites an officer of the Iraqi police (not the Iraqi forces commander quoted in the Shafaq News report), and says that the engagement was related to an ISIS advance on the town of Al-Baghdadi. That puts it closer to Al-Asad than the Al-Dolab location mentioned for the engagement last weekend, and also seems to imply a different, more recent engagement.
The Pentagon’s reaction implies the same thing. It was on Thursday the 18th that Star and Stripes reported that multiple defense officials had said the allegation about U.S. involvement in the Sunday firefight (at Al-Dolab) was false. But in the 20 December report from Al Jazeera, the Pentagon’s response was that CENTCOM was “looking into” the claim about the engagement at Al-Baghdadi. That discrepancy argues a separate incident.
In sum, these developments indicate that U.S. personnel find themselves deployed, in significant numbers, to a base that’s right in the middle of a major ongoing fight for territory in Anbar. They’re not there with a mission to participate in the fighting. They can only defend themselves, “if required.” On two occasions now, they appear to have been involved in fighting to repel ISIS from positions several miles distant, which may or may not qualify as self-defense.
The stupidity of this situation can hardly be overstated. It’s bad enough for a big concentration of Americans to be present in Irbil, some 30-35 miles from the forward line of ISIS control near Mosul. It’s ridiculous to put 350 or more Americans at Al-Asad, in one of the Iraqi forces’ most exposed positions – in the middle of a swath of territory swarming with ISIS operatives – and authorize the Americans “only to defend themselves.”
With so many Americans deployed to it, Al-Asad automatically becomes the highest-value target in Anbar. ISIS is reported to be suffering a serious downturn in morale right now, with foreign jihadis resenting their abuse in the front lines of the fighting, and even ISIS’s Iraqi and Syrian fighters becoming reluctant to show up for duty. The Kurdish achievement in liberating Mount Sinjar in the north is a blow to ISIS’s momentum after a four-month siege there, and ISIS will be looking for a meaningful PR victory. Its most important – and earliest-established – territorial holdings are along its line of communication in the Euphrates corridor: that’s where it will fight the hardest and seek most determinedly to administer a blow to the Iraqi and American forces.
So we shouldn’t crow too soon over the skirmish(es) with U.S. forces near Al-Asad this past week. It looks to me like one big reason why ISIS keeps coming after Al-Dolab and Al-Baghdadi is that those waypoints are the approach vector, from the river side, to Al-Asad air base. The air base can’t be protected and remain operational, under sustained threat, if ISIS occupies the town of Al-Baghdadi – 3-4 miles away – and controls the territory immediately around it.
ISIS doesn’t have to capture the base or massacre Americans, although its leadership no doubt longs to. To achieve a big PR victory – and a meaningful tactical one – ISIS only has to make our forces abandon our position there. And that can be achieved by driving the Iraqis out. From Al-Baghdadi, ISIS has the means to inflict damage on the air base, damage that could well make it at least temporarily useless to the Iraqi forces operating from it. Such a defeat would be worth inflicting – and is certainly possible if U.S. forces are held to the constraints we are told they labor under.
The British public is seeing news Americans aren’t: that ISIS jihadis are getting good at avoiding air strikes, and British Special Forces are being deployed to operate in small teams and go after ISIS directly. In contrast to the U.S. situation at Al-Asad, the Brits are adopting an operational posture that makes sense, at least in this particular regard.
Remember, however, that the U.S. military is not executing a plan it desired or shaped. Lieutenant General James Terry, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, briefed reporters on Thursday that the approach we’re using there will probably take about three years to bear fruit. We’re going into Iraq to “build partner capacity” – train the Iraqis to fight independently – and apparently are planning to let the territorial and operational situation evolve as it will while we do that.
That is frankly idiotic, and there is nothing dictating to us that we handle the intervention in such a way. Obama has a choice. One thing he could do is deploy at least a full infantry brigade task force, with integrated Army airpower as well as support from the Air Force and Navy, to fight alongside the Iraqis and drive ISIS forcibly out of the Euphrates corridor – leaving a pile of ISIS corpses along the way. That is the way to buy time and space for reconstituting an independently effective Iraqi force.
Instead, Obama is deploying hundreds of Americans into one of the Iraqi forces’ exposed forward positions, without a combat mission. He’s hanging a bull’s eye on them in a shooting gallery, with orders to stand still and just wait to defend themselves. Two things, at this point, aren’t any wonder: that some Americans, somehow, have had to involve themselves in repulsing ISIS miles away from the base; and that Congress has been so reluctant to give Obama explicit approval for this dangerously ill-defined operation.