Q&A with Brigadier General Darsie Rogers
Joint Forces Special Operations Component Command-Iraq
Special Warfare: What does success look like, particularly to U.S. special-operations forces in Iraq, right now?
Rogers: The mission statement for U.S. SOF in Iraq has taken many forms over the years. Thinking back, two things have remained constant: To assist Iraq in building an enduring special-operations and counterterrorism capability that they can sustain within their own security-forces structure once we depart; and to target those extremist groups that threaten the sovereignty of Iraq as well as the presence of U.S. forces, allied forces, diplomats and Iraq’s citizens.
Along with other members of the U.S. military, our interagency partners and the commitment of our Iraqi partners, we’ve developed an enduring capability while simultaneously maintaining pressure on the networks to protect U.S. efforts and interests and allow the government of Iraq the breathing room to grow and develop their political and military structure.
So, have we achieved success? The answer to that is yes. The Iraqi Security Forces have a reliable, professional counterterrorism capability that has allowed them to plan their own successful operations against Iraq’s enemies — be they extremists, criminals or terrorists. The forces we’ve partnered with over the years routinely conduct counterterrorism operations independently — without U.S. adviser support. The bottom line is that they develop their own intelligence so they can conduct their own planning. They then are able to execute missions unilaterally and have the ability to exploit that intelligence and conduct operations against follow-on targets.
Today, as we near completion of our drawdown in Iraq with just a little over a month remaining of Operation New Dawn, we continue to conduct advise-and assist-operations. But now the purpose of those operations has more to do with strengthening our partnership, to help the Iraqis expand their TTPs, (tactics, techniques and procedures) and capabilities, and hone the skills they’ve learned. The Iraqis can certainly sustain this capability once we leave. Specifically, the Iraq Special Operations Forces are capable of denying terrorists the freedom of movement needed for large coordinated activities, and as a result, we can transition out of Iraq with confidence that they will be able to maintain pressure on networks threatening the government of Iraq.
SW: Do you feel confident that they will be able to sustain the mission without our force structure in place?
Rogers: We have to be careful not to view Iraqi SOF competencies through a U.S. lens. Our U.S. special-operations forces can seize an objective and establish a forward operating base in a matter of days, as demonstrated time and again in Afghanistan or Iraq. We have magnificent special operators who can come into an uncertain environment and have an immediate impact, because they have sharpened their skills for years. They are extremely well-prepared, well-trained and supported by a massive doctrine, communications and logistics network. However, the Iraqis have only been at this for eight-plus years. That really isn’t a very long time to develop a high-end counterterrorism and special-operations force. The Iraqis have received world-class training, and their training culminated in combat operations. Few forces in the world have more combat experience, and they are very, very capable at targeting the threat within Iraq’s borders. So, we have to manage expectations with regard to the current limitations against the capabilities they possess and will be able to sustain. For instance, they will not have an ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) capability equivalent to ours, at least not immediately. They will not have an aviation component that is comparable to ours, initially. Over time, they will desire and develop a need for those advanced capabilities, but for now, they have what they need to be successful.
Really, when considered from a larger perspective, we have a sovereign, stable, self-reliant Iraq which has a democratically elected government, functioning civil institutions and a growing economy. This is a fledgling democracy, but already we see the beginnings of the military-to-civilian transition of the security tasks. But they still have a lot of work to do. The security forces, over time, will take on a more traditional role of defending the nation’s borders rather than a day-to-day interior fight. They will refine their future requirements in time, designing them to meet the needs of the government and the regional internal or external threats.
I’m very confident that Iraqi SOF elements, specifically the Counterterrorism Service and Iraqi Special Operations Forces, will be able to sustain effective CT and special operations after our departure.
SW: How important are the Iraqi Special Operations Forces and the Counterterrorism Service to the sovereignty of Iraq, and what is the key to their success in the coming years?
Rogers: It is important to note that over the years, we have partnered with a broad range of units across the Iraqi Security Forces, border guards and police. SOF fingerprints are all over Iraq’s Security Forces. The real backbone of Iraq’s SOF capability is the Counterterrorism Service. They will be the force of choice to disrupt high-end terror networks, protect the Iraqi people and isolate extremist groups from internal and external support.
The key to Iraq’s success is the continuation of force development. There is a propensity for Iraq’s military organizations to equate improvement to an increase in force size. We have stressed that force size, defined as the numbers of battalions or brigades in the formation, is much less important than precision capability. It is so much more than just having a bunch of great shooters. They’ve got to address the entire organization: structure, logistics, recruiting, initial-entry training, budget, you name it. At some point, they should integrate into the Ministry of Defense, or MoD, or another higher support structure. If it is decided that the Counterterrorism Service is to remain independent from the MoD, there may be ways to mitigate shortfalls, such as contracting their sustainment and support requirements. Whatever the decision, they must start thinking about the long-term sustainment and structure of the organization.
They have an ambitious training and expansion program. They want to expand ISOF by four additional battalions that are regionally oriented, and have developed a feasible plan without being too ambitious in terms of numbers and equipment. The special-operations advisers who spent so much time with the CTS headquarters and at the brigades have convinced them that capability does not equate to numbers. What matters is how good you are today and what you do to be better tomorrow.
SW: How important have our efforts been to the political-security landscape in the Middle East?
Rogers: Obviously we have removed some of the world’s most brutal terrorists from the ranks of al-Qaeda in Iraq and other violent extremist organizations. We’ve really done a fantastic job of maintaining pressure on terrorist networks, and in many cases disrupting networks outside Iraq, interdicting those players who may be transiting or recruited from here. I think we’ve had a significant impact on the landscape and threats terrorists posed across the Middle East.
But the fight against terrorists is not fought by CT capabilities in Iraq alone. Good governance and rule of law are arguably more essential at this stage. Take the Arab Spring demonstrations that have been raging across the region. Iraq’s democratically elected government was not immune to angry protests, but the demonstrations were a result of the people demanding efficiency from their government, not the ousting of the government. There is something to be said for the overall effort. You look to Iraq’s left and right, and there is a lot of conflict in the region, but Iraq is relatively stable and will be for some time to come. When people believe they have a voice and recourse against bad leadership or injustice, when they exercise their rights peacefully and with impunity, they are less likely to take up arms against that system. The Iraqi Security Forces and the government of Iraq reacted responsibly, and so, in turn, did the people, for the most part. Both the institutions of authority and the people here need to earn each other’s trust, and cooperation will hopefully follow. They’ve been given a unique opportunity to pursue freedom and prosperity on their own terms, and now they have to figure out how to unite toward a common goal, which should be to realize the full potential of their country.
SW: U.S. forces have dealt with a lot of challenges; what has been the biggest challenge?
Rogers: There have been a range of challenges here over the years, and in my current position, I think that we have always seen the challenge as that of engaging the threat. We have had some pretty formidable experiences with extremist groups that have grown more advanced. They have been amorphous and adapted to our TTPs. They’ve become cellular in nature. They have developed specializations in the fields of counterfeiting, forgery and identification theft, media exploitation and finance, just to name a few examples. So operations in Iraq have become more demanding as our adversary becomes more advanced and circumvents our TTPs. The bottom line is that we have had the arduous task of shredding those networks. It’s hard work, but our forces and associated partners have acclimated to these conditions and become very adept over years of multiple tours in Iraq, Afghanistan and other places around the world.
During the last several months, though, the biggest challenge is getting eight years’ worth of stuff out of Iraq. We went from bare-base operations to huge facilities spread across the entirety of Iraq. It has been a tremendous challenge. Once the scale of the accomplishment becomes clear, people will be astonished. Take, for instance, an ODA that sets up in one location, and over the course of 2 to 5 years has upgraded its communications footprint from relying on tactical radios and SATCOM to robust SIPR and NIPR connectivity and everything else associated with an enduring base. We have had to account for, turn in and redeploy all of those things. I can’t begin to compliment our logisticians and the U.S. military support apparatus enough. They have been absolutely magnificent, but it has been a challenge for everyone. When you are bringing in that extra pallet every rotation, you never think about having to send it home. So kudos to SF groups and the SOTFs who began reducing this mountain of steel in advance of Operation New Dawn. They have really pushed hard these last few months to winnow the sustainment needs down to the essentials, and we are going to get all we need to take with us out of here and on time. I am very proud of them for knocking that out.
SW: It seems like we are doing a good job of denying the enemy’s ambitions to take advantage of our logistics challenges.
Rogers: There has been a very deliberate plan. In the Information Age, there are greater operational-security concerns than ever before, and we cannot allow the enemy to know when we are leaving so they can take advantage of our departure. We have tried to control the movement, the departure of forces and the transition of bases, all in coordination and cooperation with the Iraqi government. The Iraqi Security Forces begin to assume greater responsibility for the perimeter security of our bases as we collapse our footprint, and we no longer announce when we are going to officially transfer a base until after our troops have left and are safely on their way home. By safeguarding our plans and movements, we are in good shape to depart Iraq safely, responsibly and on time.
It’s important to mention that we could not be accomplishing the next-to-impossible without the partnership of the Iraqis. There is an official and collaborative process for how everything is transferred to the Iraqi government. The GoI (government of Iraq) identified a sole proprietor with the official title of Receivership Secretariat, who inventories and inspects every building on every base. There are some items we will leave here only because it is cost-prohibitive to bring them home. That said, every item transferred to the GoI is accounted for and transitioned to them in good condition that the RS accepts.
It’s also no accident that our base transitions have gone smoothly. Over the years, we have made countless improvements to the bases and facilities we used across this country, and that is to our countries’ mutual benefit. We cannot take things like plumbing, central air conditioning and water-treatment plants with us, so we are leaving these bases in better condition than before. It is the right and responsible thing to do, and it is one more way we have set the Iraqis up for success. The Iraqi government will hopefully continue to improve upon these sites and put them to good use for their military or citizens.
SW: What are the most important lessons learned for ARSOF regiments from the eight-plus years in Iraq? How has the force changed from our experience in Iraq?
Rogers: Our force hasn’t changed because of Iraq. Our force has changed because of the experiences we have had in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Philippines, Africa, everywhere we are, every day. NCOs and SOF leaders have taken those experiences and incorporated them into our pre-mission training, unit training, our military education system, the school house and doctrine. Iraq is just one component of the evolution of SOF. It has brought us to where we are today. I hope someone has taken what we have learned here and applied it elsewhere, as we have taken the lessons of others and incorporated them here.
Because of those experiences, we are a far better organization today than we were, and the fact that we have smart guys out there — a hell of a lot smarter than me — who take this information and fuse it into a product — be it pre-mission training or doctrine — that our special operators can use for their next mission, is truly remarkable and critical to the continued growth of our force.
As for my time here, and the different capacities in which I have served over the years, I have seen our force grow as Iraq evolved. We were required to adapt to the changing mission and the changing environment. No rotation was ever the same. Guys would come over and execute and come back six or 18 months later, and they had to calibrate to the environment. We didn’t come in cold … we were all studying, learning as we went along. We are a learning force. We adapt to our enemy, as well.
In the early days, we focused on unilateral operations, pursuing senior regime officials with U.S. CT forces. There were no Iraqi Security Forces after the army had been disbanded. Then we took on the next phase; we were in the lead, starting to develop a partner force. Our initial partners, such as the 36th Commandos and Hillah SWAT, were conducting movement-to-contact operations in pickup trucks, carrying 10 men in the back, armed only with an AK-47 and one magazine apiece. That was the beginning of our enduring partnership.
As we transitioned to working in conjunction with the Iraqis, they took on the duties of a professional military force. They had initial training and the beginnings of a military structure. At that point, they were pursuing those forces that were threatening their government.
Today, the Iraqi forces are in the lead, while we are coaching, standing off to the side in a supporting role. In most cases, we only assist with the initial planning or supply intelligence support, if necessary, and focus on the after-action review process to fine-tune their capability.
The list of lessons learned is a mile long. They go from the junior Soldier on the ODA to the head of the CJSOTF or higher. The take-away is our force has a tremendous capability to learn from operations across all the theaters, use it, fuse it and produce the ideal, prototypical special operator who can fall into any of the SF groups and, in short order, be ready to deploy to an operational area — whether it’s efforts in the Philippines or a village in Afghanistan.
Another important lesson is that the culture has changed over time. Special-operations forces serve side-by-side with conventional forces. Because we work together every day, we’ve formed a bona fide partnership with conventional forces. It’s always been one fight, but in the past, we spent too much energy fighting each other over turf. Today, the communication and teamwork have never been better. Not everyone has had the positive experience I have, but the relationship between the two is outstanding in Iraq. We have to keep working together. If we go back to our stovepipe training mentality, we will lose the familiarity and relationships built over the past eight years here and in the other theaters, and that would be a tragic loss.
SW: Any last thoughts?
Rogers: As this draws to an end on Dec. 31, we will leave a sovereign, stable and self-reliant country with a promising and prosperous future. There has been a lot of sacrifice here from everyone — from our special operators, all U.S. military and interagency partners and so many innocent Iraqi people. While Iraq has made tremendous gains in both security and stability, internal friction and external influences will weigh heavy on its leaders, requiring difficult choices. They have been given promising opportunities, and I am optimistic that they will realize their potential.
American forces should be proud of what they have accomplished here. It has come at tremendous cost — both personally and financially — on the part of Soldiers, families and the American people. Anyone who has done a tour should be proud of what we have built. The Iraqis I have come to know are appreciative of our efforts. They want us to come back and train with them in the future and maintain a partnership with U.S. SOF. That, I think, best speaks to the idea that America’s military has come to represent here. I’m just damn proud to be part of it.