In May 2016, Task Force Strike, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), assumed the responsibility of advising and assisting Iraqi security forces in their fight to defeat Islamic State group militants.
At the time, the Iraqi security forces were at a critical point of transition. In the preceding 18 months, they and Kurdish forces stopped the advance of the Islamic State group and established a stable defensive line. In preparations to oust the militants from Mosul, the Iraqis required capable advisers spread across 14 divisions. To enable this, Task Force Strike developed an approach to expeditionary advising focused on maintaining a persistent forward presence with Iraqi partners, leveraging precision capabilities and building a robust adviser network. Understanding the critical elements of this transformation can help inform policy discussions on future advising concepts, specifically security force assistance brigades.
Before Task Force Strike’s arrival in May 2016, the Iraqi security forces, which include the Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Services, the Iraqi Army and the Federal Police, conducted limited operations to retake key areas. The liberation of Fallujah was still underway and, although the Islamic State group retained key lines of communication into Mosul, the security forces generated enough combat power and national will to shift from defense to offense. In April 2016, the Iraqis began Operation Valley Wolf, the first major offensive operation in northern Iraq, setting conditions for the liberation of Mosul. Despite recent success in the Euphrates River Valley, there was little confidence that Iraqi forces could retake Mosul.
When Task Force Strike assumed the mission, advisers were constrained to operating out of a few large coalition bases, focusing mostly on training and equipping. Advise and assist teams had a limited ability to move by ground behind the forward troops and no ability to move forward with Iraqi combat units. The task force had only a handful of tactical vehicles, and travel outside of established bases required the highest level of approval. For advise and assist teams, which were co-located at their partner’s garrison headquarters, advising occurred only during planning. Once operations began, contact with Iraqi security forces was limited and occurred only by phone and occasional trips by the Iraqi Army commander back to the rear. The exception to this model was at Camp Swift, an austere base where Task Force Strike headquarters, a battalion-level advise and assist team, and the Iraqi Ninewa Operational Command were co-located.
It quickly became clear that this paradigm for conducting advise and assist, while low-risk to U.S. forces, could not compel Iraqi success. Conducting advise and assist from a few mature bases, separated from partners, with no front line presence, lost opportunities to affect Iraqi security forces’ planning and did not show Iraqis an advisory commitment, an essential element to gaining their trust. Likewise, the Iraqi forces operated with short planning horizons, and if advisers could not plan ahead of them, they could only react.
A defining moment in the transition from forward-base advising to expeditionary advise and assist began the morning of July 15, 2016, as elements of the Iraqi 15th Division conducted an opposed crossing of the Tigris River about 40 miles south of Mosul.
A float bridge would connect two converging Iraqi axes of advance. The Iraqi Army completed the bridge while task force artillery provided obscuration and fires and unmanned aerial vehicles provided intelligence on Islamic State group positions. Recognizing the significant risk to the mission if the bridge failed, the task force provided engineers for expeditionary advising for the river crossing to ensure the bridge was constructed correctly, and a battalion advise and assist team to oversee the bridge’s defenses and steel the resolve of Iraqi forces. This marked the first time members of Task Force Strike, or any conventional unit, moved beyond the Kurdish forward line. The success of this mission solidified the criticality of pushing advisers forward with their Iraqi security forces counterparts and clearly demonstrated the need for expeditionary advising for Mosul.
Over the next few weeks, the task force’s artillery battalion, a battalion advise and assist team, and coalition special operations elements began supporting Kurdish forces as they seized terrain around Mosul to establish tactical assembly areas and position areas for artillery closer to the city.
The Iraqi plan for the Mosul offensive included four primary axes of advance and a designated Iraqi commander for each axis. The Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Services and Federal Police each had their own axis and the Iraqi Army controlled two axes. Battalion advise and assist teams were in each assembly area with the axis commanders as Iraqi forces from across the country began to assemble. On Oct. 17, Operation Eagle Strike, the Mosul counterattack, began after only three weeks in the assembly areas.
The final evolution of the task force’s advising structure into advise, assist, accompany and enable teams, platoon-sized units operating inside the city just behind the Iraqi forward line, came following a failed Iraqi mission on Dec. 6, 2016. Elements of the Iraqi 9th Division penetrated into southeast Mosul, seizing a militant strongpoint at the al-Salam Hospital, a key intersection and dominant terrain. The next day, the Islamic State group counterattacked, isolating the Iraqi forces and inflicting significant casualties, including the loss of an Iraqi armor battalion’s worth of vehicles. The Iraqi security forces were forced to launch a rescue mission to break out their surrounded element. Following this event, task force advise, assist, accompany and enable teams moved into the city to provide on-scene advising and timely precision fires needed to ensure tactical success.
The most fundamental aspect of the task force’s transformation to expeditionary advising came from the realization that a persistent presence with the forward Iraqi forces was essential for progress. Persistent presence closed the information gap and enabled advisers to better synchronize the efforts of the Iraqi forces and the coalition.
Being in the room every day next to Iraqi security forces’ senior leadership and their subordinate commanders allowed advisers to discuss the next day’s plan. Nightly meetings were the setting of key conversations, where Iraqi commanders delivered intent and coordination between units occurred. While impossible to quantify, there remains a human dimension to modern ground combat, and the persistent presence of a U.S. adviser demonstrated our commitment.
Achieving a persistent presence required a progression in the task force’s advising structure from “advise and assist” to “expeditionary advise and assist” and finally “advise, assist, accompany and enable.” Advise, assist, accompany and enable teams were built around U.S. infantry company headquarters and partnered with Iraqi security forces’ brigade-sized headquarters just behind the forward lines. This reorganization allowed partnering at the lowest level, where decisions were made and where the Iraqis could best leverage and synchronize U.S. joint fires.
The transition to expeditionary advising increased risk to advising teams, and the ability to effectively mitigate risk to advise and assist teams significantly closer to forward troops required Task Force Strike to resource additional capabilities. Securing advise, assist, accompany and enable teams required additional security forces, totaling three infantry companies worth of combat power, when the task force was already force manning level-constrained.
Additionally, the task force now required up-armored tactical vehicles drawn from Army pre-positioned stocks. To ensure mobility along ground lines of communication, the task force developed two route-clearance packages and established ground and aerial quick-reaction forces. These changes required a change in authorities and increases to manning levels.
For Army captains to advise Iraqi generals, they had to bring more to the table than just presence. The ability to assist through precision munitions and intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance gave the leaders in the strike force credibility and relevance in the eyes of their counterparts.
Precision munitions delivered by coalition aircraft and artillery provided key assistance in Mosul and set the conditions for Iraqi forces to maneuver. This assistance included the task force’s 155 mm howitzer battery, close-air support, close-combat attack and unmanned aerial vehicles. Task Force Strike synchronized and coordinated joint fires in support of Iraqi tactical units through targeting processes executed in conjunction with the two division-level strike cells. Equally important, advisers were equipped with communications systems that allowed them to view graphics and full-motion video feeds. Being forward with Iraqi commanders allowed advisers to pinpoint Islamic State group positions and prevent fratricide.
Task Force Strike’s M777 howitzer battery provided the only all-weather surface-to-surface capability in northern Iraq. The task force used organic artillery to perform obscuration missions, pinpoint cratering of intersections to slow vehicle-borne IEDs, and illuminate missions to enable night operations and guide fleeing Iraqi families caught in the crossfire. The battery conducted 16 gun raids (one by air assault) and established five position areas for artillery. They fired almost 1,400 missions totaling 6,200 rounds; 1,250 rounds were precision or near-precision munitions, the most fired by any U.S. Army unit to date.
Coalition munitions resulted in staggering battle damage to Islamic State group forces in Task Force Strike’s area, destroying over 5,000 militant fighters, over 300 vehicle-borne IEDs and hundreds of technical vehicles, boats, mortar tubes, rocket rails and artillery pieces. The impact of this support cannot be overstated. It gave advisers credibility with their Iraqi commanders.
As units advanced across an area the size of West Virginia, it was essential to understand the depth and breadth of Iraqi movements through maintaining advisers at all levels. A critical challenge was getting inside the Iraqi security forces’ decision cycle so advisers could inform Iraqi decisions. Critical to building a robust adviser network throughout the task force was communicating with adjacent and higher headquarters advising elements. As Iraqi security forces pressed the fight in Mosul, the situation on the ground became more fluid and fast-paced. Advisers had to see their partners better than they saw themselves and stay ahead of the Iraqis to anticipate contracting and logistical requirements. The task force required a network that linked dispersed advise and assist teams and allowed for timely reporting and information-sharing.
Common Operating Picture
The key to achieving shared understanding across the advising network was development of a common operating picture that included near-real-time information on Iraqi security forces and Islamic State group units. The U.S. Army’s current programs of record include the Command Post of the Future and Agile Client, both ineffective due to their classification level and bandwidth required to operate. To adapt, Task Force Strike relied on Google Map overlays and clear reporting requirements to build the common operating picture.
Task Force Strike’s expeditionary communication system provided a classified communications capability to the forward edge of the forward troops. With advisers dispersed over hundreds of miles, the task force needed the ability to communicate beyond line of sight using digital and analog systems and access to a Secret Internet Protocol Router (SIPR) for strike requests. Although the task force deployed with Capability Set 15, it was inadequate at the company level. The task force acquired older systems, like SIPR-Non-secure Internet Protocol Router Access Portal terminals and newer systems like the GATR ball and Tampa Microwaves to provide SIPR access at the lowest level. Without a low bandwidth common operating picture and SIPR at the forward edge, advise, assist, accompany and enable teams would have been isolated, less effective to their counterparts and at increased risk.
Applications to SFABs
As the Army considers the construct of security force assistance brigades, two points are worth considering. First, Iraqi security forces’ successes against the Islamic State group in Mosul demonstrate that a relatively small team of advisers can achieve significant results by connecting a partnered force to joint fires and sound decision-making.
Second, Task Force Strike found effective advise and assist operations required an extensive support structure to sustain, move and protect advise and assist teams. The task force dedicated over 70 percent of its force structure to advise and assist support and enabling tasks, with more forces dedicated to securing advisers than advising. These forces did not come ad hoc but were part of the organic unit, training together for months.
For expeditionary advising, the entirety of the staff and key enablers are required to meet the brigade combat team’s intelligence, fires and Mission Command requirements. The complexity and synchronization of large combat operations does not change simply because U.S. soldiers are not conducting the operations; the capabilities of the staff must remain similar to that of a traditional brigade combat team to effectively support advisers. This extends across every warfighting function, especially in intelligence and fires.
There is no perfect way to reorganize for advising, but the lessons utilized by Task Force Strike are undeniably pertinent as the Army considers the organization and employment of security force assistance brigades. By changing the nature of the advise and assist relationship, the task force helped the Iraqis liberate the Tigris River Valley south of Mosul, reclaim Q-West (officially known as Qayyarah Airfield) and isolate and subsequently clear eastern Mosul by early 2017.
While previous advising efforts focused on building partner capacity and limited combat advising from mature joint bases, Task Force Strike recognized that Iraqi security forces’ success in the Mosul offensive would require a transition to expeditionary advising and assisting across every warfighting function. Any unit conducting advising operations must be capable of maintaining and sustaining a persistent presence with their counterparts. Advisers must enable success, build relationships and, if necessary, steel their partners’ resolve.
For advisers, the ability to advise is reliant on their ability to assist, being as lethal in supporting their partners as they would be with U.S. formations. Adviser networks helped the task force see themselves, Iraqi partners and the enemy. The success of advisers can only be measured by the gains of those they advise, and in the case of the Iraqi security forces, Task Force Strike provided them the momentum they required to defeat the Islamic State group in Mosul.