Later this month, 1,000 paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division will deploy to Iraq along with another 300 support troops. They will join the nearly 1,600 soldiers already serving in an advisory capacity in Iraq alongside the Iraqi Army and other indigenous forces fighting Islamic State militants as part of Operation Inherent Resolve.
So far, the White House has been able to assert plausibly that the troops it has deployed back to Iraq, where combat against an Islamist insurgency is raging, are not technically combat troops. That may change, however, when these soldiers begin to see combat operations. For the American troops recently deployed to the unstable Anbar Province, that day is probably coming soon.
The 300 American troops supporting Iraqi Army and tribal soldiers against ISIS fighters have been extremely close to the fighting and are presently assigned to guard a base that has come under increasing artillery and rocket fire, according to a report in The Washington Post. They have suffered no casualties so far, but The Post noted that their mission is dangerous and will only grow more so in the coming weeks.
In a sign of the risks, military officials said American soldiers have been transported to the Ayn al-Asad base under the cover of night by helicopter — partly to maintain a low profile for the renewed U.S. operation in Iraq but also to protect U.S. personnel amid fierce fighting west of the capital, Baghdad.
While U.S. commanders have suggested that U.S. ground activities might expand, troops are limited to advising local commanders and retraining elements of Iraq’s army. The Americans are confined to military headquarters or training bases at four sites.
Those sites include al-Asad in Anbar, a largely Sunni province that has been particularly volatile and provided a foothold for Islamic State forces in Iraq. Militants now control much of the province, including the city of Fallujah and the town of Hit.
According to U.S. News, American and Iraqi military planners are gearing up for a “spring offensive” against the ISIS militants that would target the major population centers where ISIS is in partial or full control, including Mosul, Fallujah, and Ramadi.
This will be a street fighting campaign in which house-to-house clearing operations will need to be conducted by the ill-trained Iraqi Army, a fighting force of dubious loyalty and efficacy. In October, the Pentagon said that it would be unlikely that Iraqi troops would be capable of even mounting an operation to retake the city of Mosul for at least a year. If that timetable is accelerating, U.S. troops will no doubt have to play more than an advisory role.
For now, the nearly 3,000 American troops helping in the fight against ISIS militants in Iraq are operating only as advisors, but any GI who has served in that capacity will tell you that there is no difference between an advisor and a combat soldier when the shooting starts. It is possible that the tempo of operations in Iraq is about to pick up pace, and it will be increasingly difficult for the American presence there to maintain the fiction that their role is to merely observe poorly trained Iraqi Army and tribal forces while they attempt to beat back ISIS.