With the end of major combat operations against ISIS in Iraq, some soldiers with the 10th Mountain Division currently deployed there might be home before the end of their scheduled nine-month tour.
That’s because their headquarters has been deactivated and while some will continue to “train, advise and assist” Iraqi troops, major combat operations for land forces against Islamic State have ended.
Maj. Gen. Walter Piatt took over the Combined Joint Forces Land Component Command in March from the 1st Armored Division, but that job didn’t last long as the unit deactivated, transferring its mission to the Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve.
And that’s a good thing, Piatt said.
With the furling of a flag, top U.S. military leaders marked the “end of major combat operations against ISIS in Iraq” and a change to the U.S.-led coalition’s mission in the country.
The two-star general had previously served as a commander in Iraq on separate deployments from 2006 to 2008. He said the professionalism and transformation of the Iraqi Security Forces and Iraqi Army is “truly historic.”
The 3rd Brigade of the 10th Mountain out of Fort Polk, Louisiana, is set to return home this month on the regularly scheduled end of their nine-month tour, Piatt said. But more who recently arrived could also return in the coming months.
Due to Defense Department policy, Piatt declined to disclose exact numbers of U.S. forces in Iraq or how many might return earlier than their nine-month deployment, set to end later this year.
At its height there were an estimated 5,000 U.S. military personnel in Iraq and in recent months reports have indicated another 2,000 U.S. military personnel in Syria.
Though the mission has shifted, U.S. military involvement will not end any time soon.
Brig. Gen. Yahya Abdullah, an Iraq Security Force spokesman, said in a release that the CJTF-OIR partnership will “endure for years to come.”
And across the border, fighting continues, as a CJTF-OIR release Tuesday noted that Syrian Democratic Forces had announced their drive to reclaim ISIS territory in the Middle Euphrates River Valley.
That highlights the ongoing fight outside of Iraq’s borders that remains on the radar of both U.S. and Iraqi forces.
More than a year ago, preparations for a combat deployment began as Mountain soldiers under Piatt’s command watched as first the 1st Infantry Division out of Fort Riley, Kansas and then the 1st Armored Division out of Fort Bliss, Texas provided intelligence, logistics and other enabling elements for Iraqi troops to go after ISIS, ultimately re-taking the city of Mosul last year in a drawn out urban battle.
As that fighting raged and the major battles concluded, the previous U.S. unit missions shifted.
The two-star credited those previous units for helping the Iraqis accomplish their mission of flushing out and destroying ISIS units, which has led to the unit deactivation and shift to a training and advising focus.
So did both the pre-deployment training for the 10th Mountain soldiers, as they prepared for a training mission, which some will continue to do as Iraqis build their ability to defend their borders, Piatt said.
And in recent weeks, the day-to-day lives of soldiers on the ground has also changed, he said.
“They were living on dirt-floor fire bases and forward operating bases and now they’re helping man operations centers with the coalition and our division staff,” Piatt said.
Iraqi forces in the interior of the country and on its border edges continue to capture and destroy caches of explosives, weapons and ammunitions daily, Piatt said.
That has “kept the pressure on,” preventing ISIS fighters from building a capacity to launch take back territory.
At the same time keeping ISIS fighters from returning to Iraq is another key priority.
“Our mission for months now has been training border guard forces,” Piatt said.
That means more than just guarding checkpoints.
“No border is secured on the border itself, it has to be secured in depth,” Piatt said.
Part of that defense plan is “ruthlessly pursuing ISIS,” the two-star said.
With the shift to the CJTF-OIR headquarters in Kuwait some soldiers will find themselves in those command centers. But others remain “fused” with the Iraqi units they continue to train, Piatt said.
Those sit in Baghdad, Mosul, Kirkuk, Anbar province and near the Al Asad Air Base in Jazeera, he said.
That fusion gives the Iraqi Army the ability to employ their forces in key areas of operation and gives ISIS fighters “no gaps or areas to hide.”