WASHINGTON — The Iraqi Army is moving slowly but making progress as it continues to ramp up training, according to Task Force Panther leaders recently returned from a nine9-month mission where it trained and advised more than 12,400 Iraqi soldiers.
The task force was composed of 1,300 paratroopers and leaders from six battalions from the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division. The force trained and advised the newly stood up 9th, 15th and 16th Iraqi Army divisions and worked with the Ministry of Peshmerga in Northern Iraq.
"They are better trained, they are better equipped and they are better led," Col. Curtis Buzzard, commander of the 3rd brigade 82nd Airborne Division, told reporters today at the Pentagon. "It may not be moving as quickly as we'd like it, but there's progress. This is the Iraqis fight to win, enabled by us, but they must own it and they know it," he said.
The task force, which was deployed from January through September, was tasked with trained Iraqi Army brigades and battalions at Build Partner Capacity (BPC) sites and also assisted in forming the newly established Ninewa Operations Center (NOC), charged with liberating Mosul from Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) occupation.
The training was "very broad and it was tailored to the level of training that units coming into the training sites were already at on arrival," Maj. Michael Hamilton, an operations officer from the 2-505 parachute infantry regiment, said at the same Pentagon briefing. Given most units were brand new, that meant training programs starting with very basic soldier skills: marksmanship, medical skills and soldier tasks such as how to move in a formation.
But some of the training reached higher levels such as battalion-level collective training, where hundreds of soldiers in a formation were doing complex maneuvers, Hamilton added.
The training also included special skills development such as countering improvised explosive devices, which, in part, allowed the soldiers to familiarize themselves with equipment provided by the US military, Hamilton said.
IEDs in Iraq continue to be an extensive obstacle for troops in the fight against ISIL. Iraqi troops are removing between 50 and 100 IEDs along routes every day, Buzzard said.
While IED technology is not advancing — the devices are "very rudimentary" — Iraqi troops are encountering more than the US military did prior to exiting Iraq in 2011, Buzzard said. There is also an increase in vehicle-borne IEDs.
"That's really something we put a lot of effort in, how do you mitigate the effect," of IEDs, particularly vehicle-borne ones, he added.
The proliferation of IEDs in places like Ramadi is also a component of how fast the operations go, Hamilton said. Since ISIL can move freely around the battlespace and has time to emplace IEDs, advancing into the city is a slow go as Iraqi troops work to deliberately and carefully clear IEDs out of the way, he noted.
The Task Force Panther leaders said they were deployed long enough to see some of the fruits of their labor manifest on the battlefield, but also expressed frustration that US troops could not be more involved with the Iraqi units in operations.
For example, the task force trained the 16th Iraqi Division — which was not even fully staffed when it arrived for training — that went into the fight to retake Ramadi from ISIL. The US team helped them with planning, logistics and tactical training. "They were probably the most successful Iraqi Army unit participating in that operation," Buzzard said.
Hamilton noted, success stories aside, the US Army is operating under different authorities that prevent it from sending troops out with the Iraqi soldiers and "that presents a challenge both to our own situational awareness of how they execute the operation and our ability to assist them in executing the operations."
He added, "It's very intellectually challenging to try to influence their operations while not ourselves participating."
To Hamilton, this means exercising "a lot of patience to let them lead the way for the operations and ... we offer the best advice and assistance that we can."
The Ramadi counteroffensive that has been going on since June is still at a slow chug. Buzzard accounted for the pace, stating that it's "a major operation and to move quickly to conduct that is hard. ... It's hard for a new army."
But more of a concern to Buzzard is what happens when Ramadi is taken back.
"Does the government make that population want to be aligned with the government of Iraq and the seeds don't still exist for Daesh [ISIL] or some other radical-type element to come back in," he asked.
Having deployed during the surge in 2006 and 2007, Buzzard said it was difficult to return to Iraq to see how the Iraqi Army had atrophied, but upon leaving at the end of Task Force Panther's deployment, some Iraqi units were already preparing to train again to go back into the fight.
"To me it's somewhat remarkable that they've established the force generation model and the training is seen as extremely valuable."