Military developing plans to move troops closer to front lines in Iraq

03/11/16 03:33 PM EST

Military commanders in Iraq are drafting plans for U.S. troops to accompany Iraqi brigades as they move to retake Mosul from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, according to two U.S. defense officials.

If the plans are approved, it would be a significant change for U.S. troops, who would be able to get much closer to the front lines of what is expected to be a fierce battle for Iraq's second largest city.

U.S. forces are working with Iraqi security forces at the division-level or above with a few exceptions. President Obama has said U.S. forces will be kept out of combat.

The new plan would see small US. teams of about 15 troops embedded with Iraqi brigades as they move closer to Mosul and establish headquarters in preparation for the pending battle.

It would stop short of combat operations, but would put troops closer to harm’s way.

Iraqi commanders estimate the Mosul offensive will take between eight to 12 brigades — which would mean approximately 180 U.S. troops could take part.

The teams would work with Iraqi brigade commanders to order airstrikes, and provide intelligence, logistics, tactics, and fire support.

Officials said having U.S. troops work at this level with Iraqi troops would greatly help the Iraqi Army, which was routed by ISIS when the terrorist group’s fighters took Mosul.

“It would make a massive difference,” said Michael Knights, Iraq expert and the Lafer fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Other countries are already partnered at lower levels with Iraqi forces, officials say.

Retired Army Lt. Col. Peter Mansoor, who served as retired Army Gen. David Petraeus' executive officer during the Iraq surge, said he’s actually heard calls for U.S. troops to partner with Iraqi forces at the battalion-level, which is even lower.

“These train, advise and assist missions at the brigade and division level are really important, I just don't think they go down far enough,” said Mansoor, who is currently the General Raymond E. Mason Jr. Chair of Military History at the Ohio State University.

Still, it would almost certainly expose U.S. troops to more risk.

“The risk is you move off these protected forward operating bases and these troops could be, not just killed, but kidnapped,” said Mansoor. “There are plenty of Shiite militias that would be happy to take American service members captive.”

The headquarters for the Iraqi troops could be “pretty close to the battlefield,” said James F. Jeffrey, former U.S. ambassador to Iraq and the Philip Solondz distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“The way the Iraqis do it...a brigade headquarters would get pretty close,” he said.

One U.S. defense official said the plan is still in the early phases, since the Mosul offensive has not begun.

Gen. Lloyd Austin, commander of U.S. Central Command, said earlier this week at a Senate hearing that he recently provided recommendations on how to retake Mosul and Raqqa, ISIS’s stronghold in Syria, to his leadership.

A U.S. defense official said the recommendations have been submitted to the staffs of both Carter and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, and will work their way up.

Another official said there are about 10 recommendations to accelerate the campaign, and they include the recommendation to advise, assist and accompany at the brigade level.

Austin offered comments at the hearing that suggested additional U.S. troops would benefit the Mosul operation.

“We could develop...better human intelligence. We could perhaps provide more advise and assist teams at various levels,” he said. “We could increase our assistance in terms of providing help with some logistical issues. And we could increase some elements of the special operations footprint.”

Jeffrey said he doubted the president would allow U.S. forces to get too close the battlefield, but Defense Secretary Ash Carter has spoken candidly of his — and the president’s — desire to do more to accelerate the fight against ISIS.

“I don't think anybody's satisfied with the pace of the — that's why we're all looking to accelerate it. Certainly, the president isn’t,” Carter said on Feb. 9. “And so my instructions are very clear, from my president — he wants to get this done, and I think that that is widely shared.”

It's not clear yet exactly which forces would carry out the mission at the brigade level, since doing so has not even yet been approved, a U.S. defense official said.

However, the official said the plan would envision some of them coming from within Iraq, and some from outside Iraq, which would raise the number of U.S. troops in Iraq.

The official noted that U.S. forces have worked with Iraqi forces at the brigade level before, at Al-Taqqadum Air Base temporarily during the successful fight to retake Ramadi. They have also previously worked at the “team” level only one kilometer from the front lines in the effort to secure Mount Sinjar.

But experts and officials say the fight to retake Mosul is expected to be far more difficult than the fight for Ramadi.

Mosul is ten times larger than Ramadi, and ISIS fighters have been dug in at Mosul since June 2014, while ISIS held Ramadi for only six months.

“Ramadi is a village compared with Mosul and so Mosul's going to be a tough nut to crack there's no doubt,” said Mansoor.

“The bulk of the troops that were the cutting edge of the combat force [in Ramadi] were the Iraqi special operations forces, not their regular Army units,” he added. "We are banking on the Iraq army to be a lot more effective in the battle for Mosul than it has proven to be in the past.”