Iraqi security forces, backed by American-led air power and hundreds of advisers, are planning a major spring offensive against Islamic State fighters, but the push will require training three new Iraqi Army divisions — more than 20,000 troops — in just a few months, The New York Times reported Sunday.
The goal is to break the Islamic State’s occupation in northern and western Iraq, and establish Iraqi government control over Mosul and other population centers, as well as major roads and the border with Syria by the end of 2015, American officials told the Times.
Attacking and isolating Islamic State fighters in major strongholds such as Mosul could enable Iraqi troops, Kurdish pesh merga units and fighters that have been recruited from Sunni tribes to take on a weakened foe that has been cut off from its supply lines and reinforcements in Syria, which are vulnerable to American airstrikes.
Though the U.S. began conducting airstrikes in August, the longer-term campaign plan has remained under wraps. Now that the planning has advanced, more than a dozen Iraqi and American officials provided details to the Times about a strategy that is certain to become increasingly visible.
“It is a balance between letting them develop their own plan and take ownership for it, and ensuring that they don’t stretch themselves too far and outpace their capability,” said one United States military official, who asked not to be identified.
To oversee the American effort, a new task force is being established under Lt. Gen. James L. Terry, who oversees Army forces in the Middle East and who will operate from a base in Kuwait. Maj. Gen. Paul E. Funk II will run a subordinate headquarters in Baghdad that will supervise the American advisers and trainers.
The United States currently does not plan to advise Iraqi forces below the level of a brigade, which in the Iraqi Army usually has some 2,000 troops. Nor is it clear under what circumstances American advisers might accompany Iraqi units on the battlefield or call in airstrikes. Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has indicated those things might be necessary.
Iraq’s recent history suggests that a battlefield advisory role is likely to be needed. Iraqi forces faltered during their 2008 offensive against Shiite militias in Basra until American commanders sent in troops to advise Iraqi forces below the brigade level and facilitate airstrikes.
Among the challenges, the Times wrote, are:
- Synchronizing the Iraqi campaign with the training of moderate Syrian rebels. The Pentagon’s program to train 5,000 Syrian rebel fighters a year in Saudi Arabia and Turkey has yet to get under way, which raises the possibility that Islamic State fighters could be pushed back into Syria well before there is a trained and equipped Syrian rebel force to oppose them.
- The number of U.S. personnel allowed. Military officials say President Barack Obama has limited the number of advisers, analysts and security personnel in Iraq to 1,600, though a White House spokesman has said that’s a number needed currently, and not a limit. There were 1,414 troops in Iraq as of Friday, about 600 in advisory roles from joint operations centers in Baghdad and Irbil, and at division and higher headquarters.
One senior U.S. official, who asked not be identified, said it was likely that the number would need to be raised. Army planners have drafted options that could deploy up to an additional 3,500 people to expand the advisory effort.
Iraq’s Shiite militias, some supported by Iran, pose another obstacle. Antony J. Blinken, President Obama’s deputy national security adviser, said last week that it was important that the Shiite militias be withdrawn, disband or have their members integrated into Iraq’s security forces.
Iraqi president Fuad Masum has suggested that the militias could be needed until the Islamic State was defeated.