Small Wars Journal

Advise and Assist: The Iraqi Army Through the Eyes of an American Advisor

Advise and Assist: The Iraqi Army Through the Eyes of an American Advisor by Seth J. Frantzman - Jerusalem Post

Fourteen years after the first insurgents emerged in Iraq in 2003, the US may have found a model that works in Iraq.

Speaking to US soldiers in Iraq always comes with its share of difficulties. Crackling voices, disrupted connections mar the conversation. Lt. Col. James Downing of the US 82nd Airborne Division is an advisor to Iraq’s 15th infantry division. Last month the division helped liberate Tal Afar from the Islamic State and is now preparing for new operations. Iraq is in its third year of war with the extremists and American officers like Downing are playing a key role in supporting it as they have since the US-led invasion of 2003 that toppled Saddam Hussein. Through the spotty connection Downing looks back on fourteen years of war.

“I’ve been very impressed with how far [the Iraqis] came. Their ability to fight and sustain themselves over long distances and operations, to plan and execute operations and integrate their attack helicopters and indirect fire,” he says. Downing has served in Iraq three times in the last decade and a half. He has been part of key turning points in the country’s recent history and worked with the Iraqi security forces since the US and its allies first began rebuilding them.

The US led an invasion of Iraq in March 2003. In April the statue of Saddam Hussein was yanked down in Firdos square, symbolizing the end of his brutal rule and the start of a new era. Downing arrived in Iraq as a captain in the 1st Cavalry Division when it deployed to Iraq in early 2004. “When you look at 2004 there is a period from the major ground conflict of 2003 to spring 2004 where not much happened except reconstruction.” His armored division was busy aiding rebuilding of Baghdad. He says 90% of their efforts were concentrated on these infrastructure tasks and also on “rebuilding the security forces.”  The US Coalition Provisional Authority under Paul Bremer had dissolved the Iraqi Armed Forces in May 2003, sending around 350,000 men packing. Years later during the insurgency and during the rise of ISIS this decision would be criticized for leaving men out of work and fueling extremism.

When the US and its allies sought to rebuild they initially called them the Iraqi Civil Defense Corp and then the Iraqi National Guard. “They became the [new] Iraqi army by the time I left,” recalls Downing.  During his fourteen months in Iraq, the US also began planting the seeds for Iraqi special forces, the unit now called the “golden division” or Iraqi Special Operations Forces, who have led the fight against ISIS…

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