- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London.
American officials in Baghdad and Washington confirmed Monday that American troops are on the ground with Iraqi and Kurdish troops pushing toward the city of Mosul, and in some cases may be in forward positions close to the front lines with the Islamic State.
Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, commander of the U.S.-led coalition’s efforts in Iraq and Syria, issued a statement saying that Iraqi troops are being supported by “a wide range of coalition capabilities,” including “intelligence, advisors and forward air controllers.”
It was a rare admission that the forward air controllers — also known as Joint Terminal Air Controllers, or JTACS — are on the ground working with local forces to call in airstrikes. JTACS are tasked with identifying targets for aircraft to strike, and normally remain in direct contact with pilots as they walk them into a target.
At the Pentagon, spokesman Peter Cook added some detail, telling reporters that the JTACS would not be on the front lines, but ”behind the forward line of troops,” and would be fed information by the local forces up ahead. That information would then be relayed to a command and control center.
But, Cook said, there will be some American forces close to the fight. “It’s safe to say there are Americans on the outskirts” of Mosul, where they’re embedded with Peshmerga and Iraqi counterterrorism forces, Cook said, adding that they are “playing an advisor role, an enabler role for these Iraqi forces,” in contrast to the bulk of U.S. forces in Iraq who are nowhere near the front line.
In Mosul, “to be sure, there are Americans in harm’s way in this fight,” Cook said.
The U.S. forces are advising the elite counterterrorism forces who played a key role in the battles for Fallujah and Ramadi. Command and control for those forces is found in the front lines, rather than in a headquarters miles away, meaning the U.S. troops are “providing advice in a combat environment,” Cook said. “The headquarters, particularly with the counterterrorism forces and the Peshmerga are in the battlespace itself, they’re not back in a building miles away.”
There are over 5,000 U.S. troops currently on the ground in Iraq, with the majority training local forces and working to analyze intelligence, but Special Operations Forces regularly operate outside of fortified compounds, conducting raids on ISIS positions, and advising Iraqi and Kurdish forces at the brigade and battalion level. Three Americans — a Navy SEAL, an Army Delta Force operator, and a U.S. Marine — have been killed in combat in Iraq over the past year.
Since Sunday, coalition warplanes, artillery, and rocket artillery have hit dozens of targets in and around Mosul including bridges, tunnel entrances, supply caches, and communications infrastructure, according to the U.S. Central Command. Mosul has been in the hands of the Islamic State for more than two years, and its liberation is set to produce some of the heaviest fighting in Iraq since the 2003 U.S. invasion. The fight also stands as the Iraqi army’s largest operation since the 2003 American invasion.
Most American forces in northern Iraq are stationed at the Qayara air base about 30 miles south of Mosul, where they’re providing intelligence and logistics support. Just last month, the Pentagon announced it was deploying 600 more troops to the base in the run-up to the fight for Mosul.
After kicking off the Mosul offensive Monday morning, Peshmerga forces are pushing toward the city from the east, and Iraqi troops are moving from the south, taking a series of ISIS-held villages on the outskirts of Mosul. At least a dozen suicide attacks have hit the Kurds and Iraqis, and the roads are laden with buried bombs meant to slow their advance.
Speaking at a base near the front lines Monday, Masoud Barzani, president of Iraq’s Kurdistan Region, said “we have achieved more than what we had expected in one day,” tallying about 200 square kilometers of territory retaken by anti-ISIS forces during the day.
Photo Credit: Yunus Keles/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images