AL ASAD AIR BASE, Iraq -- At the height of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Al Asad was the second largest U.S. air base in Iraq, and home to thousands of deployed coalition personnel from II Marine Expeditionary Force/Multi-National Force West and other major tenant commands.
Today, there’s only one command—Task Force Al Asad (TFAA)—a modest contingent of coalition personnel from the U.S. and Denmark. The majority of the core team are individual augments from I Marine Expeditionary Force (I MEF), which also includes U.S. Marines and Sailors from Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force—Crisis Response—Central Command (SPMAGTF—CR—CC), as well as Soldiers from the Royal Danish Army (RDA), and joint-personnel from the U.S. Army and Air Force. The task force was established in support of Combined Joint Task Force—Operation Inherent Resolve’s (CJTF-OIR) mission to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
TFAA’s mission is building partner capacity (BPC), and to advise and assist (A&A) the al-Jazira al-Badiyah Operations Center (JBOC) and the 7th Iraqi Army Division (7th IAD) in the conduct of combat operations in order to defeat Daesh in the Euphrates River Valley (ERV) and successively enable follow-on operations. Additionally, the task force provides security for the air base and coalition personnel.
“Our part of the mission is to train, advise and assist the JBOC and 7th [IAD] in order to allow them to develop (their plans and tactics) to defeat Daesh in their area of operations, and ultimately assist the Government of Iraq (GOI) in expelling threats and restoring their borders,” said U.S. Marine Col. David Casey, TFAA commander.
At the time Casey’s team arrived on deck, in July 2015 just a few months after the task force was established, the mindset of the Iraqi forces was that of much of the world—the enemy was invincible.
“We received the baton from a team that did great work… literally laying the foundation with the establishment of this base, developing those initial relationships and garnering [the Iraqis’] trust,” Casey explained. “But the bad guys at the time were still winning and aggressively taking ground, and to some extent, had the populace living in great fear and certainly had the 7th [IAD] intimidated. Many Iraqi forces had fled to different parts of Iraq, and the threat was right at our doorstep.”
Though Daesh was still at the forefront, the combined efforts of the previous task force team and Iraqi forces kept the enemy at bay and reinforced the 7th IAD’s positions.
“[The Iraqis] were in a very strong defensive mindset, partnered with the (Sunni) tribes to hold their ground and were effectively doing so,” Casey added.
However, having a strong defense didn’t mean the Iraqis were ready at the time to go on the offensive.
“In [the minds of the Iraqis], the enemy was 10-foot tall—they were [larger than life]; you couldn’t step off base because Daesh held that area; you couldn’t get anyone to conduct offensive operations; and they were solely focused on protecting Haditha and Al Asad, as well as their checkpoints,” said U.S. Marine Maj. Rick, the operations officer for TFAA and primary maneuver advisor to the 7th IAD. “Since then, they’ve realized they are competent enough to defeat Daesh, which has come from a preponderance of intelligence gathering that our [intelligence section] developed, and we provided to the Iraqi forces so they understand what the status of [Daesh] is so they can start focusing their efforts on destroying [Daesh] in zone or their area of operations.”
Many of the task force members attribute the progress the Iraqi forces have made to the confidence in their training and the change in their perception of the enemy.
“In December (2014)-January (2015), the Iraqis were in fixed positions, but by September, they did a small-scale offensive operation (to clear a checkpoint), and you could see the change in mindset to go forward,” said Danish Lt. Col. Thomas Knudsen, the executive officer for TFAA and commanding officer of the Danish Contingent (DANCON). “Because they had a good experience from this offensive [engagement], they started believing they could go [outside the wire] and fight Daesh.”
And the 7th IAD did exactly that by conducting two more offensive operations and planning for a third.
“Because we’re increasing the individual soldier’s skills, now we see the Iraqi leaders asking for more training,” Knudsen continued. “Between the two rotations of the Dane (regiments), we’ve trained approximately 2,700 Iraqi soldiers of the 7th (Iraqi Army) Division as part of the BPC mission.”
Most of the BPC training is focused on basic combat skills, which include military tactics, marksmanship, weapons handling, counter-improvised explosive devices, military operations on urban terrain, mortars, battlefield medicine, land navigation, periods of instruction (POI) in leadership, ethics, the law of war and curriculums in specialized fields.
Most recently as part of BPC, the task force’s Danish and U.S. intelligence personnel completed training of its first class of Iraqi intelligence officers, added U.S. Marine Maj. Ben, the Intelligence officer for TFAA.
“Using current intelligence drawn from the local situation and incorporating elements of ongoing coalition and [Iraqi Security Force (ISF)] planning efforts into the training, allowed [the coalition intelligence team] not only to impart important concepts related intelligence tradecraft to their Iraqi counterparts, but to begin planning with them and preparing them for their next operation,” said Ben, who is also the primary intelligence advisor to 7th IAD.
For the task force’s part in the A&A mission, key TFAA personnel integrate in staff and operational planning meetings with senior Iraqi staff members at the 7th IAD headquarters—advising them in the planning and execution of offensive operations and continued sustainment of their forces, and assisting them in bolstering their operations with fires support, close air support, and intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance (ISR) capabilities.
“Going to the staff meetings opened the door for us, and that’s what really enabled us to be part of their team and know what’s going on,” said Rick. “It gave us a better understanding of how they operate and how we can integrate whatever capabilities we have to fit within their architecture.”
According to Ben, the fires support and the ISR capabilities the task force provides in support of 7th IAD’s offensive operations, primarily focused in al-Anbar province, effectively enables Iraqi maneuvers and that stirs up the enemy—making them more vulnerable to the Iraqi-coalition targeting efforts.
“It’s a mutually beneficial relationship,” added Ben. “When the Iraqis go on the offense, our fires become more effective and vice versa.”
By enabling ISF through the A&A and BPC missions, the task force is doing their part in supporting CJTF-OIR’s multinational coalition in helping the GOI to set the conditions to defeat ISIL.
Now, more than halfway through their deployment, a different kind of energy flows through Al Asad—some could say ‘the Force has Awakened.’
“To go from a group we’re trying to convince to go out and attack the enemy to a group that wants to; we’re doing the training, trying to get these guys to believe in themselves and now they’ve completed that training and gone out and effectively executed it,” Casey adamantly affirmed. “They believe in those things and believe in themselves as well, so the resilience of the force is much better, they’ve developed that!
“That then has permeated into our partnership so I think we’re much closer, and they’re a much better force because of it. The summation of it really is the confidence they have, the willingness they have to go out there and defeat Daesh and hold ground. That turning point has significantly hit the 7th (IAD). They now have confidence, now they believe they can do things, now they’re willing to leave that defensive posture and become offensive, and that turning point has been tremendous for us,” Casey continued.
Reinforcing the offensive mindset of the ISF, focusing on developing mature operations plans that can be carried out to defeat Daesh, and enhancing their skills and abilities, arguably sounds like a an amazing feat for this modest contingent, but the task force members believe in what they’re doing and also in the potential of the Iraqi forces.
“Success builds upon success… they’re really riding a wave of high morale and momentum, the Iraqi Security Forces have taken back the initiative from Daesh,” reaffirmed Ben.
The second task force rotation is scheduled to return home early this year, and the next rotation will have some big shoes to fill.
Editor’s note: Special Operations Forces service members assigned to CJTF-OIR routinely go by their first names to protect operational security.