82nd Airborne Commander Sees Progress, Success in Iraq

Then Brig. Gen. Richard Clarke, the 82nd Airborne Division commanding general, greets a Soldier during a capabilities display on Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, Oct. 24, 2014. (U.S. Army photo/Staff Sgt. John Etheridge)
Then Brig. Gen. Richard Clarke, the 82nd Airborne Division commanding general, greets a Soldier during a capabilities display on Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, Oct. 24, 2014. (U.S. Army photo/Staff Sgt. John Etheridge)

When the last 82nd Airborne Division paratroopers arrive home in the coming weeks, they'll have left behind a different Iraq from the one they deployed to roughly nine months ago.

The Islamic State controls roughly 40 percent less of the country than it did last year. Iraqi forces have liberated key cities like Ramadi, Tikrit, Bayji and Sinjar.

Those forces, largely trained and equipped through the efforts of coalition forces, have the Islamic State reeling, said Maj. Gen. Richard D. Clarke, commander of the 82nd Airborne. And coalition airstrikes have severely damaged the long-term health of the caliphate, he said.

Clarke said he's proud of the 82nd Airborne's role in the fight as the deployment draws to a close.

Clarke, who has been the land component commander in Iraq since June, said the roughly 400 Fort Bragg paratroopers who deployed with the division headquarters have been involved in nearly every aspect of the land campaign, short of direct fighting.

They've trained and equipped Iraqi forces, advised Iraqi commanders on military strategy and worked closely with their Iraq counterparts to provide intelligence, fires and logistical support.

Sometime soon, the division headquarters will hand over the Combined Joint Forces Land Component Command-Iraq mission to its sister division, the 101st Airborne.

Soon after, the remaining nearly 250 paratroopers in Iraq will come home.

About 70 paratroopers who had been part of the division's advance party returned to Fort Bragg last week.

Clarke, speaking from Baghdad on Monday, said those paratroopers can hold their heads high for their successes in Iraq.

The division headquarters has helped lead roughly 4,000 coalition troops, from 18 nations, in direct support of the Iraqi forces.

During its deployment, more than 16,000 Iraqi forces have been trained, and more than $1 billion in equipment has been provided to the fight against the Islamic State.

Paratroopers have flown unmanned aerial vehicles more than 20,000 hours to provide intelligence to Iraqi commanders. They've delivered 3.4 million gallons of fuel and moved 1.2 tons of ammunition in support of the fight.

"Our paratroopers and the team here have made a difference in this fight," he said. "I'm extremely proud of what they've done."

Clarke stressed the Islamic State had not taken any new territory since the division deployed.

"It's almost irreversible momentum," he said. "We're in a good spot and Iraqi security forces are doing extremely well."

But that doesn't mean the U.S. involvement in Iraq, or the larger fight against the Islamic State, will draw to a close.

"I'll be frank. They are not ready for us to leave yet nor are they prepared to do this on their own at this point," Clarke said of the broader U.S. mission. "They still need assistance in training. They still need assistance in equipping. They still need assistance in our lethal air support in this fight."

That air support has included more than 7,000 strikes since Operation Inherent Resolve began, more than 4,000 of which have occurred since the 82nd Airborne deployed.

Clarke said the airstrikes were a key component to the strategy to defeat the Islamic State, but one that depends on the successes of Iraqis fighting on the ground.

"The ground campaign is why we do the air campaign," he said. "That's what will lead to the eventual defeat" of the Islamic State.

Most airstrikes, Clarke said, have been in direct support of Iraqi forces.

A much smaller percentage, about 10 to 15 percent, are more deliberate strikes to attack the enemy's future operations. Those attacks include Islamic State banks, explosive factories and oil facilities.

Meanwhile, as the training of their forces continues, the Iraqi fighters are getting incrementally better each day, he said.

The training effort is rebuilding a force that had few operational training opportunities in the U.S. military absence from 2011 to 2014, when Iraqi forces did little outside checkpoint security.

Eighteen months into Operation Inherent Resolve, Clarke said the coalition was turning that tide, but the training takes time.

"They are on the ground doing this right now on their own. But they're better once they've been through our training sites and once they receive some of the NATO equipment we've given to them," Clarke said.

While Clarke is confident in the Iraqi forces to eventually fight on their own, he also acknowledged the fight was far from over.

When the 101st Airborne takes over the land mission, it will be charged with helping the Iraqis continue to expel the Islamic State.

"The biggest challenge for the 101st will be the synchronizing of the efforts to take back Mosul," Clarke said. "There's still a lot of territory from Baghdad up to Mosul that's not completely clear. There's still some Daesh (Islamic State) pockets in the Euphrates River valley, in the vicinity of Ramadi, that need to be cleared."

The Islamic State is weaker, but its fighters are still dangerous, he said.

"They are still a rough and very dedicated enemy," he said. "They are adaptive and will continue to change their tactics to try to overcome what they're seeing as a very determined Iraqi force."

Clarke said he has faith in the soldiers from Fort Campbell, Kentucky, to add to the 82nd Airborne efforts in Iraq.

"I have no doubt they'll be successful," he said.

As for the 82nd Airborne, Clarke said the division has a long history in Iraq, from Desert Storm to multiple tours during Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation New Dawn. He said he thinks its latest deployment will have one of the most lasting impacts on the country.

"I think we all want it to be," Clarke said. "We don't want to put anymore blood and treasure into this country, but obviously we're prepared to do so until Daesh is defeated, because we all know that's the larger enemy."

"I'm seeing a much better Iraqi army today than what I saw when I first got here nine months ago," he added. "That's where I get the lasting impact."

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