Special Operations Task Force commander reflects on the battle against ISIS

Jack Murphy
February 25, 2020 - 11:06 am
MARSOC on the frontlines

Picture courtesy of Andrew Milburn


In 2016 following the fall of Mosul to ISIS U.S. Army officers had planned a large scale operation for the Iraqis to execute south of Mosul but had not included the Iraqis during the planning.

"There was this grandiose presentation of the plan to Iraq leaders," Retired Marine Corps Col. Andrew Milburn, the former Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force (CJSOTF) commander to Iraq said.  "There was this beautiful terrain model. The Army dudes walk and explain, then you're going to do this..."

Finally, the American division commander asks the Iraqis, "well, what do you think?"

"I swear this is true," Milburn said during an interview with The Team House podcast. "This Iraqi General yells from the back, 'WE'RE ALL GONNA DIE.'"

Milburn said there were many challenges, as well as the successes, of the CJSOTF which was composed of American and coalition special operations units such as Navy SEALs, Canadian Special Operations Regiment troops, operators from Denmark's Jaeger Corps, American Green Berets, and soldiers from Italy's 9th Paratrooper Assault Regiment.

"The mission was dismantle, degrade, and defeat ISIS," Milburn recalled.  Yet, the task force was severely curtailed by bureaucracy.

"The limitations is that everything has to be by, with, and through the host nation counterparts and we have restrictions on our freedom of movement. Initially, we are not able to accompany Iraqi forces or Peshmerga into combat."

With these restrictions in place, someone dreamed up the idea that technology would compensate for not taking a hands-on approach. The notion of remote advising was born. 

"We always think technology can solve everything. Because you don't need to accompany them right? Give them a phone! Give them a damn phone and they can tell you what they need, it's like calling for a pizza." Milburn said sarcastically.

The remote advise and assist suite was android based and saw American Special Operations advisors talking to their Iraqi and Kurdish counterparts over the phone or on Skype.

Milburn's assertion is that there are both tangible and intangible benefits to accompanying indigenous soldiers into combat, even if those benefits do not always translate well onto PowerPoint slides. Sharing in the dangers and hazards of war puts American advisors on equal moral and ethical footing at their local partner force, said Milburn.

"There is no substitute for being there," Milburn said when it comes to getting ground truth on the battlefield. "ISR [a reference to drones] cannot give you the same picture."

Furthermore, airstrikes are much more accurate when American soldiers are on the ground calling them in as opposed to attempting to coordinate them remotely Milburn explained.

From the former Task Force commander's point of view, higher echelons of command often have a misconception about how to manage risk as there can be an idea that not going outside the wire makes soldiers safer, when in reality it is putting them in a defensive posture that actually increases risk. Thankfully, some of those policies were later adjusted the Marine Corps officer pointed out.

"In fairness to everyone, we did start to be able to accompany our partner nation force."

Col. Milburn wrote about that campaign, and much more throughout his three-decade career in the Marine Corps in his new book "When the Tempest Gathers." 

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Reach Jack Murphy: jack@connectingvets.com or @JackMurphyRGR.