WASHINGTON — The battle to liberate Iraq’s largest city of Mosul was of a scope and magnitude not seen since World War II, U.S. military officials in Baghdad said.
Visible signs of destruction in the city are reminiscent of one of World War II’s bloodiest battles, Stalingrad.
Spearheading the operation to liberate to populous city from the grips of Islamic State terrorist was Iraq’s elite Counter-Terrorism Service, or CTS.
First on scene for the nearly nine-month push to oust ISIS from the beleaguered city, CTS operators have been at the front lines of nearly all of Iraq’s major offensive operations. From Ramadi to Fallujah and now Mosul, Iraq’s security forces have come to rely on the special forces unit in the fight against ISIS.
However, that reliance has come at a steep cost. The CTS has suffered heavy losses in the drive to liberate the dense city of over one million inhabitants.
“CTS has been a mainstay of the fight against ISIS/Daesh here in Iraq and they’ve suffered their fair share of casualties as a result of this,” said U.S. Marine Corps Brig. Gen. James F. Glynn, the deputy commanding general for Special Operations Joint Task Force ― Operation Inherent Resolve.
According to one estimate, the CTS unit suffered nearly 40 percent battle losses. That’s from a U.S. Defense Department budget request document seeking funds to help rebuild and equip the specialized unit. But the SOTF commander told Military Times: ”I don’t understand how they came up with that number.”
The CTS’s road to recovery will be met with challenges ahead that the unit seems equipped and ready to handle.
“[Special operations forces] operators are not made overnight; they aren’t mass produced,” Gen. Glynn said.
It takes nearly six months to create a basically trained CTS operator, and for officers it takes almost a year, according to Glynn.
Those six months of initial training provide those Iraqis with skillsets that can be incorporated within an elite team that allows the operators to work together effectively. Skills in military tactics, sniper, heavy weapons, mortars, communications and counter improvised explosive device training are what CTS operators are “exposed to in that initial six months,” Glynn said.
And that training doesn’t include the initial screening, selection and assessment that comes prior, similar to the pipeline of elite American commandos.
Officers have an additional six months of training that includes counterterrorism leader courses, intelligence collection and targeting to help them “find, fix, exploit and analyze” terrorist targets on that battlefield. The training also incorporates troops handling and leadership.
There’s advanced schooling too, much like U.S. special operators who might attend airborne, dive or other advanced insertion method schooling within the special operations community.
However, for the CTS that training is geared toward its own unique challenges and battlefield such as helicopter-borne operations and advanced intelligence training. The advanced training is “unique to counter-terrorism here in Iraq,” Glynn said.
But the impressive aspect of all of this is 95 percent of the training is all done in-house by the CTS, according to Glynn. The coalition only assists with refinement and new tactics, techniques, and procedures, or TTPs.
With much of Iraq’s security apparatus relying on its elite forces to clear the remnants of ISIS from Iraq, sustainment and retention of this vital force is paramount. But, “there is a long-term plan,” Glynn said.
The CTS has an effective system that melds its handling of the wounded warrior culture within the community and recruitment efforts to bolster the force.
The goal is to return wounded CTS warriors back to full duty. That means finding billets that the CTS wounded can fill while they recover, such as serving as instructors at the unit’s elite schoolhouses, Glynn said. CTS has fully embraced its wounded warrior culture.
And on the recruitment front, “finding folks to join the CTS isn’t even remotely a problem,” Glynn said. Recently, the Iraqi commandos “had over a quarter of a million applicants.”
Screening of applicants is important. The CTS are well aware of problems associated with demographics, tribal and religious affiliations when it comes to picking new recruits.
“It is a point of awareness for them in selecting recruits,” Glynn explained.
There is a “strong desire to be agnostic about where you come from,” he added. “To make sure that wouldn’t find it way back into the force itself.”
The CTS looks for indicators that would reinforce the CTS, and “have to sort down” from a pool of applicants to take the most highly qualified.
“They are sustaining their forces,” and have the ability to grow that force, Glynn said.
There are many challenges ahead for the CTS in the fight against ISIS, to include other highly populated Iraq cities under ISIS’ control such as Tal Afar, Al Qaim and Hawija, where thousands more ISIS fighters are entrenched.
However, a post-ISIS landscape is also on the minds of the Iraqi commando force as it prepares for the future.
The elite Iraqi force has honed its skills in the recent battles against ISIS in a generally more traditional clear-and-hold force. A post-ISIS Iraq will require the unit to re-tool counterinsurgency skill sets. “They are thinking about that now,” Glynn said.
The CTS needs to ensure they have counterterror skills to face threats inside Iraq’s borders, and the ability to “apply pressure to those that would try to export terrorism,” he explained.
Iraq’s CTS has “a keen awareness of what counterinsurgency operations could bring to the larger Iraqi security force apparatus,” and they are talking about what forces and units will posses the needed capabilities.
Iraq’s special operators are equipped like any western SOF unit. They brandish similar rifles, communications, night vision, optics, and even tactical drones. However, it is not the equipment that makes the unit so successful, it is how they use it.
“They embody the idea of initiative at the lowest level” and they employ that and decision making at the small unit level as they fight block to block, much like U.S. commandos, Glynn said. They take those lessons learn and apply them at the school house.
U.S. special operations support to the CTS goes back 13 years. The unit has tough challenges ahead but have embraced much of what has made western elite units successful with its own esprit de corps.
Shawn Snow is the senior reporter for Marine Corps Times and a Marine Corps veteran.