Thursday, October 16, 2014

Anbar Front

Iraqi forces are being reinforced to hold Anbar. Will this be the location of our first Iraqi offensive effort?

ISIL continues to make gains in Iraq's Anbar province:

A string of jihadist attacks has shrunk the Iraqi government's footprint in Anbar to a bare minimum and officials are warning time is running out to save the western province from falling completely. ...

Kurdish and federal troops backed by US-led airstrikes have pinned back their enemy and notched up gains in northern Iraq in recent weeks, but in Anbar the jihadists have retained the initiative.

A senior US defence official told AFP that the Iraqi's army position in Anbar was "tenuous".

"They are being resupplied and they're holding their own, but it's tough and challenging," the official said. "I think it's fragile there now."

We are aware that Anbar, which starts just west of Baghdad, is very important:

Some of the hundreds of US officers who have been deployed to Iraq in an advisory capacity have been helping Baghdad plan its next move in Anbar.

But it remains unclear whether Iraq's army, sometimes described as a "checkpoint army" with only a few thousand elite forces really capable of fighting IS, can buck the trend in Anbar.

A "checkpoint army" was sufficient when the enemy was decimated and largely strategically immobile. But with our foot off of the jihadis' necks after we left in 2011, the jihadis exceeded the capabilities of such a security force.

As I've noted, Iraq's good mobile forces seem to be composed of just their small counter-terrorist force of special forces-like troops.

We need our advisors to whip regular army troops into shape to carry out this role and begin to check ISIL's advances and to roll back ISIL's Anbar gains.

The Iraqis have pushed more of their forces to the Anbar front, it seems, according to the Pentagon briefer:

Q: Just a quick follow-on on Anbar. You mentioned, I think, that about a third of the Iraqi security forces are there now, and what I'm wondering is, is that sort of a redeployment of forces? Have they pushed forces in that direction?


Q: And, secondly, is it your assessment that those forces are sort of -- at this point capable of offensive-type operations? Or would they still need a fair amount of support before they can do that?

REAR ADM. KIRBY: Yeah, so the answer to your first question is, yes, we've seen them move forward. Number two, yes, but -- we do see Iraqi security forces branch out, move forward. They're taking the offense in some areas. But as we've said, again, all along, these forces for three years were not given the proper resources, staffing and leadership that they needed, so it's a mixed picture.

I can't honestly look you in the eye and say that every unit there of that third of the army is of the same caliber of quality and competence. They aren't. That's one of the reasons why our advise and assist mission is so important and why, you know, we continue to try to give them help, again, at the brigade level or higher.

And we do have, I think, seven advising teams that are focused on Iraqi headquarters in the south and in and around Baghdad. The other five are up near Erbil. So that's a key part of this effort, is to...

Q: Sorry to interrupt, but any of those teams in Anbar?

REAR ADM. KIRBY: No. As I said, they're at -- they're at brigade- or division-level headquarters. Those headquarters staffs do not go out in the field. The advising teams are not out in the field. The Iraqi security forces -- to Jim's question, they very much are, and they are pushing forward. But with mixed success. And I said that, I think, in my answer to Phil. There's -- it's a mixed picture there in Anbar.

I'll guess that we have advisors with a division and four brigades up with the Kurds and are supporting 2 division headquarters and 5 brigades around Baghdad.

Perhaps the 200 Australian special forces advisors stuck outside Iraq waiting for a legal agreement with the Iraqis are intended to complement our efforts there to expand the number of brigades being supported.

This would support two of the three offensive thrusts that I've discussed: the Kurds moving southwest to liberate Mosul and cut lines of communication between Syria and the front north of Baghdad; and a drive from the Baghdad area west into Anbar.

Will Jordan strike from the west into Anbar to assist this effort from the other side?

American-led airpower is crucial for this, of course, guided by Coalition forward air controllers.

And will we be able to help the Iraqis strike north from the Baghdad region, too, in a third thrust once ISIL is looking over its shoulder worried about the advance from the Kurdish region?

Killing ISIL troops fighting around Kobane is important both to keep ISIL occupied on the secondary front of Syria and to kill them so fewer troops can be shifted to the main Iraqi front.

We can defeat ISIL. They aren't supermen. Their eagerness to die gives them a morale advantage against shaky defenders. But that eagerness to die can be exploited by well-trained troops who can send them on their way to Paradise.

The Iraqi Kurds now seem to be holding their own in the north and the Iraqis north of Baghdad seem to have a largely static front since more recent Iraqi offensive efforts petered out.

But Anbar is eroding--both in terms of Iraqi security forces and in terms of persuading Sunni Arabs that it is safe to turn against the jihadis. If we can look like the strong horse, we'll get more help from the locals:

The bombing campaign against ISIL in Iraq and Syria is limited in effectiveness because of the lack of a good informant network in areas ISIL controls. This is largely because most of the territory ISIL controls is populated by Sunni Arabs. ISIL prefers to kill or drive non-Sunnis out of areas they govern. Most Sunni Arabs back the idea of Sunnis, especially Sunni Arabs, being in charge. That belief is so widespread that it’s extremely difficult, and dangerous, for Sunni Arabs to act as an informant against ISIL or any other Sunni Arab leaders.

We have to focus there just to stop the retreat and keep Iraqi security force morale from taking another major hit by losing a major force to jihadi attacks.

I hope it doesn't take too long to get the Iraqis moving forward.