Lights Out: ARSOF reflect on eight years in Iraq

Lights Out

ARSOF Reflect on Eight Years in Iraq

By Major Dave Butler
Originally published in the January-March 2012 edition of Special Warfare

In August 2011, a team from the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School, serving as representatives of Special Warfare, visited special-operations forces in Iraq to take the pulse of special opeations in the Arabian Peninsula.

During this historic time, U.S. forces were already reposturing for what was to become the U.S. exit from Iraq. Staffs at every level worked through multiple scenarios to inform their commands of if/then situations. Leaders made recommendations. Forward operating bases closed. The enemy took advantage where he could. Each day in August and September of 2011 was rich with signals of the end of the war in Iraq ...

The Iraq of 2011 is far different from the one encountered by U.S. troops eight years ago, but some things have remained the same. In a statement to the Senate Armed Services Committee in March, 2011, Gen. James N. Mattis, the commander of the U.S. Central Command, noted, “Iraq faces lingering ethnic and sectarian mistrust, tensions between political parties, and strained governmental capacity to provide basic services. Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) remains committed to undermining the Iraqi government and is capable of carrying out orchestrated, high-profile attacks. Likewise, Iranian-inspired and equipped proxies continue to be a threat to Iraqi security and governance.

“While the security situation in Iraq is vastly improved since the peak of sectarian violence there in mid-2007 (violence is currently at all-time lowest levels since 2003), Iraq continues to face significant political, economic and security challenges,” continued Mattis. “Over the coming year, several factors will determine Iraq’s strategic direction, including the continuing development of Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), the effectiveness of the nascent governing coalition and the degree to which the country is influenced by Iran and threatened by AQI and Shi’a militia elements.

“From now until the end of this year, United States Forces-Iraq (USF-I) is continuing to partner with ISF during this historic period of transition. USF-I is undertaking a range of activities, foremost among these strengthening the ISF, transitioning security-related activities to Iraq and the U.S. interagency, and contributing to border management and ministerial development. Through USF-I and in partnership with the embassy country team, we are planning the initial stand-up of the Office of Security Cooperation-Iraq (OSC-I) in June of this year and expect it to be fully operational by this October. OSC-I is the cornerstone of our long-term mission to build partner capacity with the ISF. Additionally, the OSC-I will ensure the continuation of the military-to-military relationships that advise, train and assist Iraqi Security Forces.”

Mattis’ plans for 2011 became of utmost importance in October, when President Barack Obama announced the pull-out of American forces from Iraq.

“The last American Soldier[s] will cross the border out of Iraq with their heads held high, proud of their success and knowing that the American people stand united in our support for our troops. That is how America’s military efforts in Iraq will end,” said President Obama.1

With the President’s announcement, Army special-operations forces, or ARSOF, began taking stock of the past eight years in Iraq and looking forward to their possible role in Iraq’s future.

Partners for Life

“Arguably, the most important military component of the struggle against violent extremists is not the fighting we do ourselves, but how well we help prepare our partners to defend and govern themselves.”
— Secretary of Defense Robert Gates

U.S. special-operations formations have lived and breathed Gates’ words over much of the past eight years, as they have invested into the development of Iraqi special-operations forces, or ISOF. The success of ISOF speaks volumes to the training and the partnership between the two forces. Tactical formations are able to operate largely independently through the entire targeting cycle in order to execute operations directed by the government of Iraq, or GoI.

Conventional forces stopped combat operations altogether on Aug. 31, 2010.2 Special-operations forces were still conducting bilateral counterterrorism operations to put pressure on the terrorist networks in Iraq, and throughout 2011, they transitioned those missions to their ISOF brethren.

A team representing Special Warfare visited Iraq in August to get the ground truth of ARSOF's final missions in Iraq. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Roberto Di Giovine)Some Special Forces operational detachments-alpha or ODAs, were positioned away from their partner forces during the drawdown of conventional forces. Special operators referred to that unique situation as “commuter foreign internal defense.” Commuter FID is not an ideal relationship; it sometimes allows contact with FID partners only by phone. But did ISOF sit on their laurels or cease to conduct effective operations? No. ISOF continued to put effective pressure on terrorist networks throughout the country.

The U.S. SOF mission, under the unified command of the Joint Forces Special Operations Component Command – Iraq, was to conduct special operations with select partners to counter threats to internal security, disrupt violent extremist organizations and develop an enduring counterterrorism capability, and set conditions for a long-term partnership between Iraq and the U.S.3

ISOF proved to be effective fighting forces within the limits of their capabilities. ARSOF operators understand Iraqi limitations as compared to our military. The savvy operator also understands the benefit of a less advanced fighting force. As U.S. forces draw down, Special Forces teams are proud of what they have achieved during eight years of combat FID.

Soldiers assigned to the CJSOTF-Arabian Peninsula, or CJSOTF-AP, almost overwhelmingly agree that their Iraqi special-operations partners have become an effective fighting force.

“The constable leadership has the mind set and intelligence to make happen anything you or I could make happen,” said the team sergeant of ODA 5435, when describing a recent operation that was conducted at a U.S. SOF to ISOF ratio of 1:6, in which the ISOF controlled the operation via their own communications network and cleared every building on an eight-building objective.

“This operation was so transparent. We shared intelligence, routes; we shared the name of the target,” said the team sergeant. “The only thing we facilitated was ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aerial platform], but they could have done without it.”4

With the end of the war in sight, and the complete pull-out of U.S. troops by Dec. 31, Iraqi and American forces were looking at their relationship and how it would be affected. In an interview with the New York Times in July 2011, Iraq’s top SOF leader made a plea for U.S. Special Forces to remain in the country. “The Americans need to stay, because we don’t have control over our borders,” said Maj. Gen. Fadhel al-Barwari.

Al-Barwari’s relationship with U.S. Special Forces dates back to 1991 in northern Iraq. He resumed his relationship in 2003, as ARSOF units took on the training of the Iraqi Counterterrorism Force. Like many in the Iraq Army, al-Barwari rose through the ranks and maintained personal relationships with U.S. SOF leaders as they deployed and returned to Iraq. During Special Warfare’s visit to Iraq, al-Barwari hosted the team and numerous other members of U.S. SOF for dinner in his home. The long-term relationships that existed were apparent from the warm embraces and recollective conversations. He is fond of noting that he is advised today by the same American Soldiers who made him do push-ups eight years ago.

That kind of persistent engagement and building of relationships are hallmarks of ARSOF. Noting that ARSOF is the only force in the Department of Defense that is specifically trained and educated to work with indigenous forces, Maj. Gen. Bennet S. Sacolick, the commander of the JFK Special Warfare Center and School, says, “They [ARSOF] possess a unique set of capabilities that enable both lethal and nonlethal missions specifically designed to influence enemy, neutral and friendly audiences. Those forces can shape foreign political and military environments by working with host nations, regional partners, indigenous populations and their respective institutions in order to prevent insurgencies or conflicts from destabilizing allies, partner nations and vital security relationships. Through those actions, they can ultimately deter conflict, prevail in war or succeed in a wide range of contingencies.”5

Because of their ability to build relationships, ARSOF in Iraq have continually partnered at every level of the Iraqi Counterterrorism Service, or CTS.

Special Forces A-teams were assigned to separate ISOF companies, SF companies and B-teams were assigned to brigades, and SF-led military training teams partnered at the national, CTS level. Prior to August, U.S. SOF maintained A-teams who acted as SF liaison elements, or SFLEs, at the Iraqi national- and intelligence-agency level to assist in intelligence analysis and sharing.

Each U.S. SOF element had decisive and deliberate contact with its Iraqi partners on a regular basis. Various fledgling ISOF headquarters still require support and training in order to sustain, equip and maintain their more developed force. Until an extended agreement is reached, it is worthwhile to review our progress, the ISOF’s abilities and the current state of operations.

The Product - The Iraqi CTS

“Our partner force can do the full spectrum of operations from planning all the way to sensitive-site exploitation to their standard … they are successful at what they do,” said the team leader of ODA 2116.

Under the tutelage of SF elements in Iraq, the CTS and the Emergency Response Brigade, or ERB, have been established. The CTS is an all-Iraqi, internal, direct-action task force. It is composed of two Iraqi special-operations brigades and the Iraqi Special Warfare Center and School. The ERB is composed of six special-weapons-and-tactics battalions and one battalion for logistics support.

The primary difference between the ERB and CTS lies in the authority under which they operate. The ERB is a force directed and funded by the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior.

“We no longer partner with the ERB,” said Brig. Gen. Darsie Rogers, commander, Joint Forces Special Operations Component Command-Iraq. “We terminated that relationship, which was part of the greater plan as we depart here. The ERB is a very capable unit. They’ve suffered some leadership challenges toward the end of rotation. I think the intent of Iraqi security forces is to bring ERB if not under the control, then essentially under the tactical command of the CT Service, and that may bring some overhead structure to the organization. The ERB is still functioning, and they are still conducting operations across the region. We made a great element. There is a lot of capability there. The Iraqis who are part of the ERB have been provided all the opportunities to make it a world-class law-enforcement organization. At this point, it is up to them to see what they can make of it.”6

Together, the ERB and CTS conduct direct-action operations to eliminate terrorist threats in Iraq. The forces maintain an excellent human-intelligence capability, as well as the capability to plan and execute unilateral offensive operations.7

A good example of ISOF tactical intelligence at work was related by the commander of AOB 3220, which was partnered with the 1st ISOF Brigade. It shows how the ISOF intelligence capability could be effective if its higher headquarters were mentored into a capable and empowered force.

During an operation to capture an insurgent leader whose network members killed one ISOF soldier and wounded several others the week before, the ISOF brigade commander requested and was granted the use of an Iraqi ISR platform. AOB 3220’s commander watched as the ISOF brigade staff planned for and integrated an unmanned aerial vehicle in its operations. ISOF units led the movement to the objective while monitoring their own ISR. When it was time to execute the mission, ISOF units isolated and assaulted the objective, detaining the targeted insurgent. The mission was accomplished entirely with U.S. SOF elements in trail.

“This was a success. They used ISR, monitored it, even briefed it in their plan,” said a team leader.

Some U.S. SOF Soldiers are still frustrated by what they see as sectarianism, corruption and a counterproductive policy of withholding information rather than sharing it.

Commanders, ODA team leaders and operators are quick to note that although the targeting process is valid when information is properly shared, units are often slow to act regarding individuals who have religious or political ties to the upper echelons of the Iraqi leadership.

Intelligence fusion and analysis are often ineffective because of sectarianism and other systemic problems. Tactical intelligence systems are capable, and human intelligence is working. “If the target is Shia, unless he is a low-level guy, they’re [CTS] not going to action it,” said the commander of AOB 3220. “At the tactical level, it [the targeting cycle] is working well. … At the brigade level, they would be able to do F3EAD [find, fix, finish, exploit, analyze, disseminate].”8

Another reason for seeking to maintain a presence at the higher levels of ISOF is the underlying theme of corruption, which hampers operations. Often, effective Iraqi leaders will be replaced suddenly, without notice or obvious reason, causing disruption in the ranks and reducing effectiveness. “Since we got here, we are working with a new brigade commander and all new battalion commanders. Whether that’s an initiative on their part, I don’t know; we felt that at the ODA level,” said the team leader of ODA 2134.9

In an effort to legitimize the targeting process, the Iraqi government has developed a warrant system for properly vetting operations. Prior to any operation, Iraqi units will build a warrant package to submit through the military and judicial systems for approval. Those warrant packages are often delayed or disapproved for no apparent reason. The details about the target can also be leaked, giving the targeted individual early warning and allowing him to escape.

The Future of ARSOF in Iraq

“Would we hope after spending eight years in this country, sharing blood, sweat and tears, dying side by side, working with each other, that we would maintain a relationship? Of course we would,” said Col. Scott E. Brower, commander of the CJSOTF-AP.

If ARSOF has a role in the future of Iraq, it will be under the auspices of the State Department’s Office of Security Cooperation, or OSC, which will be housed in the U.S. Embassy. With the deadline for departure looming, the U.S. government had drawn up plans for expansion of the U.S. Embassy and its operations. The OSC will be staffed by civilians and military personnel who are responsible for overseeing the training and equipping of Iraq’s security forces.

Soldiers currently in Iraq operate under the Status of Forces Agreement, or SOFA, of 2008. It has been suggested that American Soldiers operating under the auspices of the OSC will fall under diplomatic immunity. Attempts failed earlier in 2011 when Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki tried to gain approval through the Iraqi Parliament for immunity for 3,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.11

Iraqi counterterrorism forces salute during the playing of the Iraqi national anthem at a graduation ceremony for teh newest members to complete the ICTF training. (Photo by MC2(AW) Michael D. Blackwell IIOn Oct. 24, 2011, U.S. and Iraqi officials met to discuss what a standard military-to-military relationship would look like. “The president said very clearly that what we’re looking for is a more normal military-to-military relationship,” said a U.S. Navy captain, who was a member of the U.S. delegation at the meeting. “That’s the crux of what we’re discussing right now.”12

According to recent reports, around 200 U.S. trainers will be attached to the embassy’s OSC, and 700 civilian trainers will help Iraqi forces train on new U.S. military hardware they have purchased, such as F-16 fighters and Abrams tanks.13

Based on recent information coming from the Department of Defense, U.S. SOF will be part of a military-to-military relationship similar to what we have become used to in more than 50 countries around the world. U.S. SOF should expect to be engaged in either cyclical combined training programs or a similar enduring program.

U.S. special-operations units could rotate through Iraq in order to train with and engage ISOF and to continue building capacity or simply preserving our existing relationship. The training could be accomplished on a rotational basis, with gaps between visits, or through an enduring presence, wherein special-operations units overlap each other’s presence in country. The relationship could take place as joint combined exchange training, or JCET. In either case, the training partnership would be vetted and approved through the U.S. State Department and have specific training objectives tied to it.

That type of presence is what our special operators currently deployed to Iraq agree is the right answer. Special operators refer to typical results from partner operations as “inroads,” “relationships” and “ground truth.” They are also quick to note the robust human-intelligence capability and networks that exist within the Iraqi counterterrorism forces.

Overwhelmingly, SOF operators suggested the benefit of a U.S. SOF presence in Iraq. There is some disagreement about where best to employ our forces: Some suggest that SOF would be best employed at the ISOF battalion level and below, in order to monitor the progress of ISOF, as well as to observe the ground truth of enemy operations, while others hope for a SOF presence at the ISOF brigade level and higher, to assist in the professionalization of ISOF and in intelligence analysis and fusion.

The Strategic Reality

“Strategic reality demands that the U.S. government get better at building partner capacity.”
— Secretary Robert Gates

Andrew Shapiro, assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, recently explained the role of security assistance in today’s world, and while his remarks were not directed toward Iraq, they sum up the work of ARSOF over the past eight years and point toward its future in Iraq.

Members of the Iraqi Emergency Response Brigade conduct operations with U.S. Special Operations Forces. (Photo by MC2 John Hulle)“Security assistance has broad foreign-policy implications. It is not just that weapons can be used in a conflict and therefore must be dealt with very carefully. It is that the distribution of security assistance is fundamentally a foreign-policy act. Additionally, programs like the International Military Education and Training program, or IMET, help build military-to-military connections between countries. This builds ties between militaries and creates strong incentives for recipient countries to maintain good ties with the United States,” he said. “When countries accept security assistance, they are ultimately making a long-term strategic commitment to develop a relationship with the U.S. Security assistance is therefore a critical tool that helps undergird our diplomatic relationships and strengthen alliances with countries around the world.”

He noted that work like that done by ARSOF in Iraq is crucial. “Today, we’re often more concerned about a state that is weak than one that is strong. In an interconnected world, terrorists, pirates, traffickers and other transnational actors can exploit the weakness of states to cause mayhem and instability. Security assistance can be a critical tool to support states trying to build their security capacity. Our assistance can help states better control their borders and their coastlines. It can help train a state’s forces to ensure they operate in a more professional manner that protects their publics, while respecting human rights. And our assistance can help states better deal with transnational threats.”

During a visit to Iraq in November, Vice President Joe Biden said that people in the U.S. still ask whether it is worth it to spend so much energy and money in Iraq, a country where 4,485 American military personnel have died and tens of thousands of Iraqis have been killed.

“We have jointly demonstrated it is worth it. It is worth it — as costly and as difficult and sometimes as controversial as it is,” he said.14 

Maj. Dave Butler
served as an Infantry company commander in central Iraq during the Iraq War troop surge in 2007. He has numerous deployments as an Infantry officer and most recently deployed as the editorial team leader for Special Warfare. Maj. Butler currently serves as the public affairs officer and chief of strategic communication for the JFK Special Warfare Center and School.


1. Remarks by Secretary of Defense Gates to the Washington Post, July 31, 2009.

2. Remarks by President Barack Obama in address to the nation on the end of combat operations in Iraq, Aug. 31, 2010; web source:

3. Remarks made by Brig. Gen. Darsie  Rogers, to Special Warfare magazine team in Iraq, Aug. 24, 2011.

4. Interview held with the ODA 5435 team sergeant during Special Warfare magazine visit to central Iraq, Aug. 28, 2011.

5. Bennet S. Sacolick, “Persistent Engagement: Why Foreign Internal Defense Is Important,” Special Warfare, September-December 2011, 43.

6. Brig. Gen. Darsie Rogers, phone interview, Iraq, Nov. 22, 2011.

7. Remarks made by Brig. Gen. Darsie Rogers to Special Warfare magazine team in Iraq, Aug. 24, 2011.

8. Interview held with AOB 3220 commander during Special Warfare magazine visit, central Iraq, Aug. 28, 2011.

9. ODA 2134 team leader, interview held during Special Warfare magazine visit, northern Iraq, Aug. 27, 2011.

10. Tim Arango,“Taking Lead, Iraqis Hope U.S. Special Operations Commandos Stay,” New York Times, July 2, 2011, web source: 

11. Alister Bull, “Biden says U.S. pullout brings new phase with Iraq,” Reuters, Nov. 30, 2011, web source:

12. Lisa Daniel, “U.S., Iraq move toward normal military relations,” Armed Forces Press Service, Oct. 24, 2011, web source:

13. Alister Bull, “Biden says U.S. pullout brings new phase with Iraq,” Reuters.

14. “VP Biden: US troop departure marks new beginning with Iraq, Sadrists protest his presence,” Associated Press, Nov. 29, 201,  web source:

THIS issue

January-March 2012
Volume 25 | Issue 1

Special Warfare cover, January-March 2012

Special Warfare

Special Warfare is an authorized, official quarterly publication of the United States Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School, Fort Bragg, N.C. Its mission is to promote the professional development of special-operations forces by providing a forum for the examination of established doctrine and new ideas.

Views expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect official Army position. This publication does not supersede any information presented in other official Army publications.