CAMP SWIFT, Iraq—Thirteen years ago, Chase Snow’s father was among the American troops who moved into the Iraqi city of Mosul during the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein. Now Snow, a U.S. Army specialist, is deployed in Iraq to help in the fight to retake the city from the Islamic State group.
The assault on Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, is bringing American forces into their most significant role in Iraq in years, in terms of numbers and presence on the front lines.
The lead-up to the assault has already brought some U.S. forces into combat with the militants. Special forces carry out raids alongside Iraqi troops inside IS-held territory around Mosul. And now as Iraqi forces prepare for the operation to retake the city, those raids have increased in frequency, according to a coalition official, who spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to brief the media.
The U.S. has also sent Apache helicopters to aid in the Mosul fight, according to the Pentagon, a step that was not taken when Iraqi forces retook the western cities of Ramadi and Fallujah.
The number of U.S. troops in Iraq has steadily grown over the past two years to now nearly 6,000 service members, up from almost none following the 2011 withdrawal from Iraq. The latest group, numbering nearly 600, began to deploy in September to Qayara air base, the facility 30 miles south of Mosul that is to be the main staging ground for the assault on the city. Trucks have been rolling in the base for weeks with supplies and equipment, preparing it so coalition warplanes will be able to operate there.
“You’ve got to look at Mosul as the crown jewel right now,” said Maj. Gen. Gary Volesky, the head of U.S ground forces in Iraq, regarding the build-up of forces. The deployments have “all been targeted to assist in the Mosul attack.”
Besides the hundreds of special forces, most of the American personnel operate back from the front lines, coordinating coalition airstrikes, tracking Iraqi ground troops, sharing intelligence and helping plan operations.
Snow, from Nashville, Tennessee, with the 101st Airborne Division, is advising Iraqi officers carrying out the Mosul operation. His father was also with the 101st in Mosul in 2003. Now on Snow’s Iraq deployment, he carries the same American flag his father kept with him on all of his tours and his father’s good luck charm: a St. Michael prayer card.
“I know my father never thought I would be coming to Iraq,” Snow said
U.S. presence at bases closer to Mosul in the lead up to operation is “essential” to the advise-and-assist mission, said U.S. Army Col. Brett Sylvia, the commanding officer at Camp Swift, a small coalition base outside Makhmour, some 73 kilometers (45 miles) southeast of Mosul.
“If you’re not there, then you don’t have a voice,” Sylvia said, standing in front of the bank of televisions and desktop monitors that he says constitutes the forward edge of the battle for his men.
As of last week, there were 4,565 U.S. troops in Iraq, according to the Pentagon. That doesn’t include another 1,500 troops considered there “on temporary duty,” whose number changes daily, according to the U.S. officials
U.S. troop levels in Iraq peaked at 157,800 during the 2008 surge under then-President George W. Bush, according to the Pentagon. More than 140,000 U.S. troops were in Iraq when President Barack Obama took office in 2009. Obama drew down the forces until the complete withdrawal of late 2011 removed all combat troops from the country, leaving behind only a few hundred U.S. trainers, mainly civilians, to assist Iraqi security forces.
U.S. forces began returning after the Islamic State group overran Mosul in the summer of 2014 and blitzed across much of northern, central and western Iraq, joining it to territory it holds in Syria. Weeks later, President Barack Obama announced the start of the air campaign against the Islamic State. At the time, he underlined that he will not allow the U.S. “to be dragged into fighting another war in Iraq.”
But the U.S. role has steadily grown as Iraqi and Kurdish forces continue to rely heavily on coalition airpower and support in taking back the territory the militant group overran in 2014.
Over the past year, three American service members have been killed by IS in Iraq, revealing the increasingly active role of U.S. forces in a fight the Pentagon initially refused to describe as combat.
In October 2015, Master Sgt. Joshua Wheeler was killed as he and dozens of other U.S. special forces participated in a raid alongside Iraqi Kurdish forces to free IS-held prisoners.
At the time, Defense secretary Ash Carter said it hadn’t been part of the plan for U.S. forces to engage in combat during that raid and that Wheeler had “rushed to help” when the Kurdish fighters he was with came under attack.
Months later, Marine Staff Sgt. Louis Cardin was killed when IS fighters attacked a fire base near Camp Swift.
By the time of the third American death — Navy SEAL Charles Keating, who was killed in May — Carter immediately described it as a combat death. “He was in a firefight and he died in combat,” he said.
Carter noted that while the coalition’s overall approach is to enable local forces, “that doesn’t mean we aren’t going to do any fighting at all.”
Iraqi commanders say despite months of training, their men are still almost entirely dependent on coalition airpower and intelligence to retake territory.
“If we didn’t have airstrikes we wouldn’t be able to advance,” Iraqi Army Capt. Riad Ghafil with the Nineveh Operation Command admitted.
On a recent day at the Basmaya base outside Baghdad, Snow attended a graduation ceremony for 1,000 Iraqi soldiers who finished training and will be deployed in the north against IS. About halfway through the long series of speeches, the graduates began falling out of formation and slipping away from the ceremony to escape the midday sun. Coalition trainers at the event shook their heads in dismay, explaining that discipline was one of the skills the course focused on.
Throughout the steady intensification of the U.S. war in Iraq over the past two years, coalition and U.S. officials maintained that ultimately a lasting solution will only come from political change and reconciliation among Iraqi Shiites, Sunnis and other communities. But Iraqi political leadership has repeatedly failed to meet benchmarks for political reconciliation.
At Camp Swift, Sylvia said that after his last tour in Baghdad in 2008 he said he never thought he’d be back again. He said he hopes the U.S. doesn’t fully withdraw from Iraq a second time.
“I would like us to have a long-term, engaging relationship with our Iraqi partners,” he said.
“I think there is some admission (among some Iraqis) that it was a mistake for us to leave.”