Although the U.S. mission in Iraq is often referred to as one of advising and assisting, only about 25 percent of the 101st Airborne Division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team was doing that during its deployment to Iraq, which concluded in January, the brigade's commander said at the Pentagon May 3 during a media roundtable discussion of the deployment.
Army Col. Brett Sylvia, the brigade's commander, told reporters that the other 75 percent of his Task Force Strike soldiers were engaged in route clearance, expedited communications, air and ground coordination, and logistics, which enabled Iraq to build up its forces up and get to their tactical assembly area for the push into eastern Mosul, which began Oct. 17 as part of the effort to liberate Iraq's second-largest city from the control of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
When Task Force Strike arrived in Iraq in April 2016, the Air Force was delivering all the precision strike capability to the Iraqis fighting ISIS, Sylvia said. Over the course of the deployment, Task Force Strike soldiers augmented much of that strike capability with their own artillery and unmanned aerial vehicle assets. About 6,000 artillery rounds were fired, he added.
Army Col. Brett Sylvia, commander of the 101st Airborne Division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team, conducts a key leader engagement with Iraqi forces on advancements into Mosul at Tactical Assembly Area Filfayl, Iraq, Nov. 26, 2016. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Christopher Brecht)
Sylvia said he was pleased with the authorities the U.S. commanders on the ground were given to call for fire to enable the Iraqi ground forces to move forward. In March 2016, the month before the task force arrived in Iraq, the authority was granted not only to the general in charge of the operation, but also for colonels, lieutenant colonels, and in at least one case, a captain near the front of the fighting, he explained.
Although the Iraqis did the fighting, some limited situations arose when U.S. soldiers accompanied them to provide "niche capability," Sylvia said. For example, he said, soldiers accompanied an Iraqi battalion on a bridge-building mission on the Tigris River, where the enemy had blown up the bridge. The soldiers advised them on establishing area security as the U.S.-made bridge was erected, he told reporters.
Militia fighters not attached to the Iraqi army who also were fighting ISIS were pretty much segregated from Iraqi forces, Sylvia said. U.S. forces were aware of their location and movements, he added, but did not interact with them in any way.
Threat From Above
It's been some time since the U.S. faced a threat from the sky, Sylvia said. During the battle for Mosul, UAVs began appearing in the air in and around the city, and it was quickly determined that they did not belong to friendly forces.
In one day alone, 12 appeared, he noted — mostly quadcopters operated by Wi-Fi with about 45 minutes of flight time.
A private drone with imaging capabilities, similar to those acquired by enemy combatants. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)
At first, he said, the enemy used them for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance and to obtain video for use as propaganda on social media sites.
Over time, Sylvia said, the enemy managed to mount 40 mm grenades on the UAVs and drop them. It was primitive, such as when World War I pilots tossed bombs out of their airplanes by hand, he said. It's not precision bombing, but it's more effective than their indiscriminate bombing, the colonel told reporters.
Over time, U.S. forces employed countermeasures that stopped or slowed their flight, enabling Iraqi ground forces to shoot them out of the sky, he said, noting that the new threat from the air led to dusting off old manuals on how to respond to threats from the air with countermeasures such as camouflage.
Best Day in Iraq
Sylvia said he clearly recalls his best day in Iraq. It was Christmas Day, and Iraqi forces, who are Muslim, invited him and his soldiers to a Christian church just outside Mosul to attend services. ISIS had gutted the church, but the Iraqis had rebuilt it with their own money.
"It was a powerful symbol, and was amazing," he said of the visit to the church, adding that he hopes the relationship forged with the Iraqis will be enduring.
Task Force Strike returned to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, in January, replaced in Iraq by the 82nd Airborne Division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team.