May 28, 2015

CNAS Press Note: Embed U.S. Combat Advisors in Iraqi Forces

In response to vigorous debate over U.S. strategy in Iraq following ISIS’ conquest of Ramadi, Military, Veterans, and Society Program Director Phillip Carter has written a new Press Note arguing that the United States needs to embed combat advisors with Iraqi forces.

The full Press Note is below:

To defeat ISIS in Iraq, the United States must deploy special operations forces (SOF) to directly advise and assist Iraqi forces in combat and embed those SOF advisors at the tactical echelons where they can make a difference. 

 When ISIS fighters came to Ramadi, the Iraqi Army fled, despite having massive military advantages in manpower, materiel, and every other quantifiable metric of tactical power. What they lacked, according to Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, was the “will to fight.” Unfortunately, the current U.S. effort in Iraq provides them neither the right materiel nor the will to fight. The United States has committed just enough to Iraq to signal our support for the Iraqi government but not enough to achieve our objective: the defeat of ISIS. Without a more robust deployment, and a decision to commit embedded combat advisors to bolster Iraqi forces, we will not succeed in Iraq.

The mission for these advisors must be to advise (not just train) the Iraqi Army in combat.  Currently, U.S. military personnel serve as trainers on secure military bases, cycling through Iraqi units for routine training on subjects like basic marksmanship and tactics; U.S. personnel also advise larger Iraqi units from their headquarters, serving as intelligence and airpower liaisons. These roles are important, and should remain so, but they will not bolster the Iraqi Army’s will to fight nor its success on the battlefield, where outcomes are determined by the performance of companies and battalions, not higher level strategy. Embedded U.S. combat advisors, ideally from U.S. special operations forces, should be given the mission to directly advise and assist Iraqi Army battalions and brigades in contact with ISIS.

If the mission is to advise and assist Iraqi forces in combat, then the U.S. must deploy its experts in this type of combat advisory work: Army Special Forces (SF). These units, colloquially known as “Green Berets,” are trained, organized, and equipped to operate in small teams attached to foreign military forces. Each team has the ability both to advise their Iraqi counterparts and to assist them by calling on U.S. airpower, intelligence, and other supporting assets. These teams do not guarantee success by any measure, but they are the U.S. military’s doctrinal answer to the problem of a partner military force that needs help in the field.

Deploying these military advisors in combat carries significantly more risk than the current footprint for U.S. troops in Iraq. In addition to deploying the SF teams themselves, the United States would likely need to deploy a larger force capable of serving as a “quick reaction force,” such as a Ranger battalion, as well as additional helicopter support to provide both combat air support and MEDEVAC support. Each additional combat unit brings with it additional requirements for logistical support, including the forward shipment of food, ammunition, fuel and other supplies; repair of combat equipment; forward medical treatment of casualties; and other functions.

Mr. Carter is available for interviews. To arrange an interview, please contact Neal Urwitz at, or call 202-457-9409.


  • Phillip Carter

    Former Senior Fellow and Director, Military, Veterans, and Society Program

    Phillip Carter was the former Senior Fellow and Director of the Military, Veterans, and Society Program at the Center for a New American Security. His research focused on issu...