The Best Thing America Built In Iraq: Iraq’s Counter-Terrorism Service and the Long War Against Militancy

Iraqi CTS

When the last pocket of the self-styled Islamic State (ISIL) was eradicated in west Mosul last week, it was fitting that the 36th Commando Battalion struck the final blows. The 36th was the first Iraqi special forces unit to be developed after Saddam’s fall. Today it is the longest serving component of the Counter-Terrorism Service — a force of less than 8,000 elite troops built by the United States, and the most militarily and politically reliable force at the disposal of the Iraqi government.

The Iraqi Army and Federal Police have regained some public trust since their collapse in June 2014, when Mosul and around twenty other cities fell to ISIL, but only two forces in Iraq have retained the faith of the Iraqi people throughout the war. One is the Counter-Terrorism Service, known in Iraq as the “Golden Division,” a model for multi-ethnic and cross-sectarian nationalism. The other is the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), the volunteer units raised by a religious fatwa and government orders in June 2014, which has fallen under the leadership of an Iranian-backed U.S.-designated terrorist, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.

The evolution of these two forces will likely shape the future of Iraq itself. Baghdad will need effective counter-terrorism forces backed by the most advanced intelligence capabilities available to the U.S.-led coalition if it is to pursue ISIL into Iraq’s deserts, borderlands, mountains, jungle groves, and urban hideouts. As important, the Iraqi government requires loyalist forces that are under the full command and control of the Iraqi prime minister — particularly as PMF leaders such as Muhandis and Hadi al-Ameri (head of the largest PMF faction Badr) continue to act outside prime ministerial control.

In the aftermath of Mosul, the Counter-Terrorism Service is exhausted. Being the best has taken its toll: The U.S. government assesses that the Counter-Terrorism Service suffered “forty percent battle losses” in Mosul. In this piece, we look at the lessons that have been learned from the first decade of the service’s existence and apply these to how the U.S.-led coalition should support its rebuilding.

Why the Counter-Terrorism Service Succeeded

One-third of Iraqi army and Federal Police brigades collapsed in June 2014, but the Counter-Terrorism Service lasted and spearheaded the counter-attack at Tikrit, Beyji, Ramadi, and eventually Mosul. The U.S.-trained Counter-Terrorism Service kept fighting because of the essential correctness of the force’s basic conception, recruitment, leadership, and training. What factors made the service so robust when the rest of Iraq’s security forces proved so brittle?

Size is a definite factor. The Counter-Terrorism Service stayed small, never exceeding around 12,500 personnel. In comparison, the Iraqi Army achieved a combat manpower of 151,250, and the Federal Police maintained a force of 82,500 at the time of the fall of Mosul. The compact size of the Counter-Terrorism Service meant that selection and training could utilize rigorous standards akin to those used for recruiting U.S. special operations forces. Using one May 2008 training program as an example, of 2,200 candidates in one Counter-Terrorism Service intake, only 401 (18 percent) succeeded in graduating as troopers. The small size of the service also allowed it to receive far better pay, living conditions, and equipment than other Iraqi troops. With pay nearly double that of a typical Iraqi army soldier, and equipped almost identically to a U.S. Special Forces trooper, the Counter-Terrorism Service developed elite espirit de corps and strong retention of skilled manpower, including a high proportion of Iraq’s best military officers.

Unsurprisingly, the force displayed superior discipline to other Iraqi units and suffered far less from corruption and militia penetration, to the extent that the United States was comfortable sharing some of its most sensitive military intelligence and equipment from the birth of the Counter-Terrorism Service to this day. The service attained a focus on professionalism, cross-sectarianism, and loyalty to Iraq that remains unparalleled within Iraq’s security forces. Unique among Iraq’s forces, the Counter-Terrorism Service developed the beginnings of a strong non-commissioned officer (NCO) cadre.

On the battlefield, the Counter-Terrorism Service undertook “industrial scale” counterterrorism operations in Iraq for nearly seven years, maintaining a grueling, sustained operational tempo unmatched by any other special operations force in world. The service developed intelligence, used in-house judges to generate timely warrants, conducted multiple takedowns of insurgent cells per night across Iraq, operated its own helicopter forces, and undertook the rapid exploitation and fusion of intelligence to drive new cycles of raids. By the time of U.S. withdrawal in 2011, the Counter-Terrorism Service had developed into a finely-tuned counterterrorism machine, and solidified its reputation as one of the finest special operations forces in the Middle East.

Options for Rebuilding

The Counter-Terrorism Service is a different animal three years after the fall of Mosul. The force has fought numerous conventional battles as an elite light infantry force mounted in U.S.-provided Humvees. In the latter half of 2014, it was the Counter-Terrorism Service that held out at the surrounded Beyji refinery, deep behind ISIL lines, until they were relieved by a Counter-Terrorism Service-led column. In 2015, the Counter-Terrorism Service led the urban clearances of Tikrit and Ramadi, followed by Fallujah and Mosul the following year. Veteran NCOs and commandos were lost year after year, followed by the loss of 40 percent of the service’s frontline troops in Mosul. For instance, beginning with 350 personnel at the start of the Mosul battle, the Najaf Regional Commando Battalion was whittled down to 150 effectives in just 90 days of fighting.

Based on the authors’ tracking of the service’s units, if this kind of cumulative attrition were mirrored across all of its combat units, the total strength of service would have fallen to about 7,600 at the time of writing (2,700 in the combat battalions, 1,900 headquarters staff, 2,400 reconnaissance battalion and logistics personnel, and 600 other staff). According to our unit tracking, the establishment strength of CTS should be around 13,920, meaning that CTS is currently 54 percent manned, and only 34 percent manned in combat battalions.

The personnel base of the Counter-Terrorism Service and its specialized capabilities will need to be largely rebuilt. There are two basic models for force regeneration. One is the paring down of Counter-Terrorism Service into one more narrowly focused on traditional counter-terrorism. The service’s current light infantry functions could be phased out as soon as ISIL is rolled back from the remaining Iraqi territory it holds in towns such as Tall Afar, Hawijah, and Al-Qaim. The service, under this model, would “snap back” into the shape it held before 2014. The service’s director Talib Shegati al-Kinani, a retired lieutenant general from the Saddam-era air defense forces, indicated on July 14 that this would be the model in keeping with existing law. The service’s current 18 commando battalions, four reconnaissance battalions, and numerous headquarters, logistical and intelligence fusion units would be brought up to strength.

An alternative model offers a more expansionary view of what the Counter-Terrorism Service could become. Under this model, the “Golden Division” would be expanded and given more missions. In addition to its core counter-terrorism tasks, the Counter-Terrorism Service might continue to operate light infantry forces capable of undertaking conventional assaults on fortified positions held by ISIL or other enemy forces. This model harkens back to the mugawir tradition (commando in Arabic), whereby special forces are light infantry that would undertake special missions during conventional military conflicts. This was the Iraqi mode of using special forces in the Iran-Iraq War and the invasion of Kuwait.

This kind of model was considered by the government of Nouri al-Maliki from 2012 onwards, with Maliki seeking to expand the service into a multi-division, “Special Republican Guard” praetorian force of over 30,000 troops with armored fighting vehicles capable of outfighting any domestic opponents, whether terrorists, militias, or even army units. The attractiveness of such an option was that the most capable force in the country would be operating directly under the prime minister’s control. At the time, the Counter-Terrorism Service was not enshrined in law and was not responsible to the cabinet or parliament, as a legally established ministry would be. The risk was clearly that this force might be used for undemocratic power grabs by a sitting prime minister or by the Counter-Terrorism Service itself. Maliki’s occasional misuses of the Counter-Terrorism Service to harass political opponents deepened these concerns, but the austerity imposed by crashing oil prices undercut expansion plans.

The battlefield successes and “conventionalization” of the Counter-Terrorism Service over the last three years will probably drive reconsideration, both inside the Iraqi government and within the U.S.-led coalition, of an expansion of the Counter-Terrorism Service as a multi-division elite light infantry force. Popular trust of the Iraqi army, Federal Police, and PMF will remain low when it comes to the complex missions of undertaking counter-terrorism and outreach to Sunni populations on in some of Iraq’s least hospitable terrain and most divided communities. Military tasks will be drawn to “the men who can,” especially now that the Counter-Terrorism Service is a legally established, ministry-level government department (as of August 13, 2016). Indeed, the new U.S. Department of Defense 2018 budget request envisions the Counter-Terrorism Service “building its non-sectarian force to 20,000 personnel over the next three fiscal years.” This suggests that the service would be brought up to establishment strength and then expanded by 43 percent in three years.

International Assistance to the Counter-Terrorism Service

Resources will now be thrown at the Counter-Terrorism Service. As noted by military expert David Witty — the author of a forthcoming Brookings Institution study on the Counter-Terrorism Service — in 2008-2010, the service received about $225 million per year from the Iraqi government (cobbled together from discretionary spending by the prime minister’s office and the Ministry of Defense). To this total, around $55 million worth of U.S. budget assistance each year would be added. This combined $280 million fell short of the service’s budget requests, which averaged $412 million in the same three-year period. We can surmise from the continued operational capability of the Counter-Terrorism Service that in-kind support from the U.S. intelligence community and special operations command bridged much of the budget gap until U.S. withdrawal in 2011 and a small portion thereafter.

In 2017, the Iraqi budget included its first dedicated line item for the Counter-Terrorism Service, totaling $683 million. If this Iraqi allocation were to be replicated in 2018 and combined with the requested $193 million of U.S. aid to the service, the total would be an unprecedented $876 million — more than triple the largest pre-2014 budget that the Counter-Terrorism Service received. What else can be done to ensure the resources are invested wisely and that the Counter-Terrorism Service continues to be effective and a force for good? In particular, what can the U.S.-led coalition do to ensure an optimal outcome?

The first thing the coalition can do is to keep working together. Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve is much more effective and resilient as a broad multinational coalition than a U.S.-Iraq security partnership ever could be. First, the multinational forces bring real capability and burden-sharing to the mission of supporting the Counter-Terrorism Service. Australian, New Zealander, French, Belgian and Spanish special forces have all contributed to training the service in its Baghdad training facility and the Taji training base, both adjacent to Baghdad. Second, the variety of world powers involved — including most of the international players on whom Iran depends for foreign investment — protects the partnership from attack by Iranian-backed militias operating within the PMF.

The second priority of the U.S.-led coalition is to maintain embedded presence at various levels of the Counter-Terrorism Service. Close collocation and daily contact allowed U.S. advisors to inculcate the service with professional ethics until 2010, and there was a strong correlation between declining service capacity in the counter-terrorism role and the withdrawal of U.S. advisors. The key levels to embed within include:

  • Ministry level. As a new ministry-level organization, the service now has to undertake all the functions that Ministry of Defense used to perform on its behalf, such as personnel, medical support, infrastructure, general expenses, vehicle maintenance, and spare parts. International capacity-building at the ministry level will have cascading positive effects across the lower levels of the Counter-Terrorism Service, and it is the best way to reduce the risk of both politicization of the service’s leadership as well as human rights violations by forming relationships and early warning mechanisms. International advisors could assist the service to update the national counter-terrorism strategy and develop an Iraqi counter-insurgency doctrine.
  • Counter-Terrorism Service units were brought to a high level of capacity with as few as one hundred U.S. advisors present at secure sites such as the service’s training academy at Area IV in Baghdad. These advisors kept standards up, maintaining the high “washout” rates of the service’s selection processes. Going forward, the service will be training very large numbers of replacements, with fewer surviving Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service veterans to guide the process, creating a danger that standards could slip.
  • Intelligence fusion. The service will now need to reorient its intelligence fusion headquarters in Baghdad away from battlefield intelligence towards counter-terrorism, and it will need to rebuild its provincial network of Regional Coordination Centers and their underpinning intelligence software networks and judicial sections (for generating arrest warrants). The coalition needs to maintain a direct intelligence liaison presence in the service’s headquarters at various levels.
  • Key “enablers.” Intelligence and airlift will be vital to the kinds of “wide area” security that the Counter-Terrorism Service will be undertaking as it pursues ISIL into remote areas and covert urban hideouts. Due to the vital role of helicopter assaults in the coming phase of the war, the coalition should redevelop the formerly close ties between the service’s aviation wing and the U.S. military.

Can the Counter-Terrorism Service Fix the Iraqi Military?

A final priority for international supporters should be the fostering of close relations between the Counter-Terrorism Service and its sister services in the Ministry of Defense, Ministry of Interior, and Iraqi intelligence community. Aside from the common-sense benefits of coordination, the coalition should view interface and exchange of personnel as a means by which the Counter-Terrorism Service could “cross-pollinate” with other Iraqi institutions. In the past, the Counter-Terrorism Service jealously hoarded its personnel and did not tend to release them back to Ministry of Defense (where they often originated). As a result, other agencies viewed the service as a threat.

Now the opposite is quickly becoming true, at least at the level of senior commanders. Looking for the best talent to reverse Iraq’s military disasters, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has drawn heavily on the Counter-Terrorism Service to lead key commands. Deputy commander of the service’s operational staff, Staff Lt. Gen. Abdul-Wahab al-Sa’adi, was tapped in January 2015 to lead the northern campaign to liberate Tikrit, Beyji, and then Mosul. Counter-Terrorism Service brigade commander Maj. Gen. Kareem Halfa al-Tamimi was chosen in May 2015 to head the security division in charge of the government center in the International Zone in Baghdad. In July 2016, following the devastating bombing in Baghdad’s upscale Karrada district, Abadi appointed Staff Maj. Gen. Jalil Abdul-Jabbar al-Rubaie — then the service’s intelligence director — to head the Baghdad Operations Command, controlling nearly 60 percent of the total manpower of Iraq’s security forces. Most recently, Maj. Gen. Irfan al-Hayali, the long-serving chief of the service’s Training and Development Directorate, was appointed as minister of defense in January 2017.

Rather than support an expansion of the Counter-Terrorism Service that could make Iraq’s special forces less “special,” the U.S.-led coalition should help the service to serve as an incubator for military talent. This may mean rotating Counter-Terrorism Service personnel back into other ministries, the Iraqi army, and the Federal Police. Such circulation could assist the Iraqi army in strengthening its own commando battalions and special units, and in gaining skill in counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism.

Cross-pollination of personnel could also reduce militia domination of the powerful Ministry of Interior, which is currently led by the Iranian-backed Badr movement, and its Emergency Response Division, which has recently been tied to serious human rights abuses. The service could even absorb manpower from the Popular Mobilization Forces and rotate its officers through the PMF, which might reduce the risk of future tensions between these forces. The Counter-Terrorism Service needs to be better — not bigger — than its sister agencies, serving as a model of professionalism and loyalty to the Iraqi constitution.

The U.S. effort to develop Iraq’s security forces is widely viewed as a monumental and costly failure, but there is at least one element that has been a smashing success: the Counter-Terrorism Service. Of all the institutions that America birthed in Iraq, the Counter-Terrorism Service has been and could remain the most well-conceived and effectively realized. The Counter-Terrorism Service needs sustained U.S. support if the U.S. wishes it to remain as a lasting, living monument to its hopes and good intentions for Iraq.

Michael Knights is the Lafer Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He has worked in every Iraqi province and most of the hundred districts, including periods spent embedded with the Iraqi Security Forces, the Peshmerga, and most recently with Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve. Follow @mikeknightsiraq

Alex Mello is the lead Iraq security analyst at Horizon Client Access, an advisory service working with the world’s leading energy companies. Follow @AlexMello02

Image: Staff Sgt. Alex Manne/U.S. Army