The battle for western Iraq’s Anbar governorate – the largest in the country – is intensifying as the Iraqi military and tribal militias attempt to eliminate the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) from the area.
The Anbar campaign is the latest offensive by the Iraqi military and volunteer fighters to try to recapture territory first lost to ISIL last June.
The anti-ISIL forces are receiving substantial support from the US-led military coalition, which has provided training and carried out airstrikes on ISIL positions in Iraq and Syria since August 2014.
Major Roger Cabiness, a spokesperson for the United States Department of Defense, told Al Jazeera that the US military now has approximately 3,360 personnel stationed in Iraq. Of these, 450 are trainers and 100 are advisers. Cabiness said the remainder are operating in a support capacity, such as protecting US and Iraqi facilities.
This is a tiny deployment compared to the height of the US occupation of Iraq in 2007 when more than 165,000 US soldiers were based there.
But the Pentagon is adamant that its troops will not be involved in direct combat operations against ISIL fighters.
Besides the US military, there are more than 1,500 soldiers from coalition partners in the country.
So what exactly are the thousands of foreign soldiers doing in Iraq?
Speaking to Al Jazeera, Captain Nikolaj Thide, a spokesperson for the US-led coalition, said military advisers are “assisting with planning ground operations, sharing intelligence and coordinating air strikes”.
He added that training is offered to Iraqi soldiers and volunteer forces, such as battlefield tactics, land navigation and infantry skills. They are also taught “a curriculum that entails lessons in leadership and in the ethics and laws of war”, said Thide.
He confirmed that to date, more than 11,500 Iraqi soldiers and volunteers have received such training. But that is a small fraction of the more than 250,000 Iraqi soldiers available, in addition to the thousands of tribal militias.
Mike Lyons, a military analyst and senior fellow with the Truman National Security Project, told Al Jazeera that the American soldiers currently in Iraq are US Special Forces, “primarily Green Berets, who train for this mission specifically. They will be the main advisers”.
Lyons, who as a member of the US army, was deployed to Iraq during Operation Desert Storm in 1990, explained that the mission’s main focus is to “create a competent and committed ISF [Iraqi Security Forces] division capable of retaking and holding Ramadi”, the capital of Anbar, which was captured by ISIL in May and is just 110km west of Baghdad.
Although the White House has said there are no American “boots on the ground” in Iraq, Thide told Al Jazeera that military trainers from the US and partner nations do “accompany Peshmerga [Kurdish armed forces] and ISF on key leader engagements as part of our ‘advise and assist’ mission in Iraq”.
This means supporting Iraqi soldiers as they approach leaders of tribes and organisations to aid their fight against ISIL.
Lyons said the training of Iraqi forces will be thorough and will form part of a long-term strategy against ISIL.
“It’s important in any combat organisation to have a baseline of effectiveness,” he said. “The trainers won’t release the units for combat until they feel they have achieved this.”
But during its eight-year occupation of Iraq, the US spent $25bn on training and rebuilding the Iraqi military, only for the army to abandon entire cities such as Mosul and Tikrit in the face of an ISIL assault last year.
The retreat allowed the armed group to capture American-produced weapons from military bases, free hundreds of inmates from prisons, and seize hundreds of millions of dollars from banks.
So how will this training be any different, or more effective than what the Iraqi military has already received?
“The problem facing the Iraqi military was never primarily about training – it’s about loyalty,” said Phyllis Bennis, a fellow at the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies and author of a book called Understanding ISIS and the New Global War on Terror.
“A big problem for the military since the US invasion… during which the US tried to create a new military that would be loyal to a US-imposed, US-armed, US-backed government that had little indigenous support, has been the lack of legitimacy for a government widely recognised as wracked with corruption and sectarianism,” Bennis told Al Jazeera. “The military has little reason to fight hard for it.”
Former Iraqi Brigadier General Ismael Alsodani told Al Jazeera that the Iraqi military has been reinvigorated by the support it is currently receiving.
In blunt terms, the Iraqi military is barely able to defend the country.
“The training offered by the US and foreign advisers has significantly stimulated the combat readiness of Iraqi army units and the Peshmerga,” he said.
However, when asked about the Iraqi military’s strength and capability, Alsodani, who now works as a security consultant in Washington DC, was less enthusiastic.
“The Iraqi army lost a significant part of its capabilities after June 2014. It is not an easy task to restore these capabilities over the course of one year. The air force is still not up to battle demands, and logistics and intelligence are not efficient to meet battle requirements.”
Alsodani is not alone in his assessment of Iraq’s armed forces.
“In blunt terms, the Iraqi military is barely able to defend the country,” Lyons said. “But for the coalition air support, the situation in Iraq would be much worse. There is no professionalism; any of that was destroyed when the US disbanded the Iraqi army” in 2003, following its invasion.
Lyons added that foreign military support is limited in its ability to improve the effectiveness of Iraqi forces.
“The US advisers can only do so much. In reality, the air power has provided the Iraqis time to get their civilian society together, which they haven’t,” he said. “And until they have, the military will be dysfunctional.”