ANBAR PROVINCE, Iraq -- A year ago, small American advisory elements here in Northern Iraq were operating at battle tempo as they mentored and assisted Iraqi units in a pitched fight to reclaim the city of Mosul from ISIS control.
That fight was won decisively, with an official Iraqi declaration of victory in Mosul in July 2017. And to further cement the advantage, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared complete victory over ISIS in Iraq on Dec. 9, 2017, just days before a Military.com visit to the country.
Among the Marine advisory units remaining at Al Asad and Al Taqaddum air bases in Anbar province, there is the satisfaction that comes with a mission accomplished.
But for some, victory brings its own unease: As the Marines endeavor to work themselves out of a job in Iraq, what lies beyond the current mission remains unclear.
"You're part of history now, because you were in Iraq when ISIS was defeated, tactically," he said. " ... You have been catastrophically successful. The way this thing has turned in the last year is pretty epic. So, you should be proud of what you've done and what you've contributed to."
Neller's parting words to the Marines amounted to an order to hold down the fort for the duration of the deployment.
"You will not get blown up. You will not get attacked. No one will let anyone come in here who is a bad person and do anything to anybody ... Do your job, until the wheels of that airplane leave the ground to take you home," he said.
While pockets of ISIS fighters remain in Iraq and military advisers continue to pay attention to the Syrian border and work to prevent more extremists from entering the country, planners are already discussing how and when to bring home the Marine elements deployed in support of the fight.
These discussions dovetail with those ongoing at the joint level and in diplomatic channels.
The Associated Press reported Monday, citing a senior Iraqi official close to al-Abadi, that an agreement with U.S. leaders stipulated 60 percent of troops in Iraq will come home, while about 4,000 will remain in an advisory capacity amid ongoing efforts to eradicate remaining ISIS elements and restore security.
Decisions regarding individual units can be made and executed rapidly, as was seen in late November, when officials with the joint task force overseeing the fight against ISIS announced that a Marine artillery unit deployed to Syria would be coming home early. A replacement unit, which had already conducted specialized training ahead of a planned deployment, was told to stay put stateside.
In Iraq, the first Marine Corps element to leave will likely be the additional security presence at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, roughly 150 Marines who have been sourced from the Corps' crisis response task force for the Middle East since 2015. During his tour, Neller told Marines he looked forward to bringing that contingent home soon.
"I think we're close," Col. Christopher Gideons, commander of Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force Crisis Response-Central Command, told Military.com during a December interview in Baghdad.
While pulling the extra Marine Corps element out of Baghdad would signal improved confidence in the local security situation, Gideons pointed out that the embassy could be reinforced again within hours if conditions change.
"It's not like we if we pull the Marines out of there, we're leaving the embassy, and State Department personnel, alone and unafraid," he said. "That's an hour-and-a-half flight from [an undisclosed task force hub in the Middle East] to here."
Decisions about how and when to redeploy contingents of several hundred Marines at Al Taqaddum and Al Asad will likely be made later this spring. In addition to security elements at each base sourced from the crisis response force, the Marines maintain smaller colonel-led advisory elements in each location: Task Force Spartan at Al Taqaddum, and Task Force Lion at Al Asad.
For the Marine Corps, the smallest and most junior in rank of the services, the cost of providing these senior advisory units is not insignificant.
"You all came from units, and nobody came to your unit and replaced you when you left," Neller told the troops at Al Taqaddum. "I'm sure they'd love to get you back. I'm anxious to get you back too. But I also don't want to do something that would be so risky that it would cause you to risk all the success you've gained."
In an interview with Military.com, Neller pointed to the Iraqi parliamentary elections in early May as a possible decision-forcing point. Whether or not al-Abadi is re-elected, Iraqi leadership will then be best positioned to express what support they would like from the United States going forward.
"You've got two colonels ... at Al Taqaddum and Al Asad, people slated to come in to replace both of them, what are they going to do?" Neller said. "So this happened pretty fast; so we'll give everyone some time to figure it out."
While Neller said the two elements represented a very senior capability for what has rapidly become a sustainment mission, he also expressed concern that a hasty decision based on ISIS' apparent defeat could lead to instability.
"Right now, we're sitting, kind of adjusting and let the situation kind of settle," he said. "Because it's not settled; It's settling ... the [ISIS] caliphate is technically gone, but there's still other things moving."
A New Focus
For the Marines' crisis response task force in the Middle East, which operates across a half-dozen countries, the turn the fight against ISIS has taken could mean an opportunity to focus majority efforts on non-combat operations for the first time in the unit's history.
Created in late 2014 in the wake of the 2012 terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, the unit was designed to be a multi-purpose 911 force custom-built for the region.
The unit wasn't built specifically for the fight against ISIS forces in Iraq and Syria. But it was tasked with supporting Operation Inherent Resolve immediately. For its entire existence, the anti-ISIS fight has been the unit's central focus.
Gideons, the task force commander, said roughly 500 Marines from the task force continued to operate in Iraq and Syria in support of efforts to defeat ISIS as of late December.
"But we still have a responsibility, day in and day out, to be a theater-wide crisis response force," he said. "So I think it's this juncture of, 'OK, we've got a lot of capability in the [task force], let's support OIR.' But OIR is drawing down, do we want to keep that there ... or take those things that we pushed into Iraq and Syria, make [the unit] kind of whole again and ready to respond across the region?"
There's no lack of regional hot spots to vie for the unit's time. Regions that may present missions for the task force, Gideons suggested, include Afghanistan, where U.S. troops advise local forces battling ISIS and the Taliban; Yemen, where Iran-backed Houthi rebels have attempted missile attacks on American ships; and the adjacent Bab el Mandeb strait, a key transit choke point between Yemen and the Horn of Africa.
"It's an interesting crossroads," he said. "There's a tremendous amount of capability."
Whether the unit will stay the same size in the transition process remains to be seen.
Neller told Marines forward-deployed to Norway that he'd like to "pull back" from the Middle East slightly in favor of concentrating more manpower and resources on Russia and Europe.
The Marines' 2,300-strong crisis response force, equipped with half a squadron each of MV-22 Ospreys and C-130 Hercules aircraft, is designed to be scalable, able to grow or shrink based on regional combatant commanders' requirements.
But Gideons said he didn't anticipate any change to the size of the unit in the near future.
"Just at my level, I think we're probably about right; there's an element of right-size," he said.
As senior leaders negotiate the way forward, Marines on the ground continue to ponder the implications of what they've accomplished.
Master Gunnery Sgt. Johnny Mendez, operations chief for Task Force Lion at Al Asad, is still marveling at how quickly and decisively the Iraqi troops he helped advise moved to defeat ISIS and reclaim their country.
Compared with what he observed during a deployment to Anbar province a decade ago in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Mendez said he'd seen a transformation in the soldiers' attitude, drive and determination to win.
"Ten years ago, we were doing operations; we were doing full support," he said. "Now, it's nice to see, from the backseat, that they're actually taking pride in what they're doing. It's different."
The change had less to do, he said, with the Marines' assistance than it did with an elemental struggle, driven by ISIS' wanton destruction and disregard for human life and dignity.
"Honestly, it was just the fight between good and evil," Mendez said. "I think it was the local population and the local people were done seeing so much bad being done. They took pride in, this is their country. I couldn't put my finger on it [before], but that was it."
Col. Damian Spooner, the commanding officer of Task Force Spartan at Al Taqaddum, said he had observed a similar change.
During a Military.com visit to the base, Spooner said it had been more than a year since it had come under enemy fire, another indicator of how Iraqi troops, rather than Marines, were prosecuting the fight.
"Ten years ago, when we were here, I would have given anything to have the Iraqis doing the fighting, instead of Marines dying every day over here," Spooner said. "And now, here we are, and the Iraqis are going out. I think what's important about that is, they have earned this. They have liberated Iraq, they have defeated Daesh, and it gives me hope for the country that there's something there that they have earned, and they're not going to give it up easily. I think that's very important."
Chief Warrant Officer 2 Daniel Carreon, current operations officer for the crisis response task force, cautioned that the fight isn't over, and that ISIS, denied control of major cities, would move underground and mount an insurgency campaign.
But even in the current lull following a declaration of victory, Carreon said emotions are mixed among deployed Marines.
"I think Marines want to kill bad guys, right?" he said. "So if you take that out of the equation, I don't know how that makes us feel. Probably not happy."