Is Iraq relying too heavily on elite special forces?

Is Iraq relying too heavily on elite special forces?
Analysis: The Golden Division has spearheaded the fight to retake Mosul, but many fear it may burn itself out in the process, reports Paul Iddon.
5 min read
24 January, 2017
The elite Golden Division has led the fight for Mosul [AFP]
As the Iraqi army makes incremental progress in recapturing the vast metropolis of Mosul, fears have spread that it is relying far too heavily on its elite Golden Division special forces, running the risk of wearing down or even destroying this essential group.

"It's not a choice to depend too heavily on Iraqi Special Operations Forces (ISOF), it's a necessity," said Michael Knights, the Lafer Fellow at the Washington Institute.

"But efforts are being made to share the burden by bringing fresh non-ISOF units to east Mosul," he told The New Arab.

After a pause in fighting in December, Iraqi ground forces have initiated the second phase of their operation to reclaim Mosul from Islamic State group militants.

"After Mosul the ISOF will need major rest and refitting, with an evolution back towards high-end counter terrorism training," Knights added. "The new brigades are coming in all the time - 43rd, 60th - plus other special operations forces coming in from Basra and the Ministry of Interior."

Read more: From dirty to Golden - the death-masked brigade routing IS

Knights also said the "ISOF are not fighting 100 percent. They have a rotation system of 20 days on, 10 off, so a third of their strength is always off the frontline."

Heavy reliance on elite soldiers isn't something presently confined to Iraq. Late last month The Atlantic ran a piece entitled Will Trump Break the Special Forces? which outlined the tremendous strain US special operations soldiers have been put under throughout the Obama administration - and the risks of President Trump continuing or exacerbating this strain. 

"No president has relied upon special ops as much as Barack Obama," the article noted, before going on to outline how relying heavily upon special forces with little let-up in operational tempo increases the risk of these forces "fraying" or even "burning out".

Another article, in Politico, warned that heavy reliance on the Golden Division in the battle for Mosul could see its eventual demise.

"Put simply," the article said, "the Golden Division's fight for Mosul could go down in history as one of the greatest victories of the Iraqi government - and its last."

Exclusive: Entering Mosul with Iraq's 9th Division

Joel Wing, an Iraq analyst who runs the Musings on Iraq blog, said such isues had long been catered for.

"Worries about the Golden Division being worn down in the war against the Islamic State have been brought up long before the Mosul operation," he told The New Arab. "The unit has been in the lead in all the major battles. Mosul, however, is different - because of the size of the city and how tenaciously the Islamic State group is defending it.


"It's worth remembering that the Golden Division is made up of several Special Forces brigades," Wing continued. "One has already been rotated out of Mosul to rest and refit, and additional ones have been deployed to different parts of east Mosul. So far it looks like it can manage the battle."

The division, "and other units in the city from the army and the police have been welcomed by many", said Wing. 

"As long as they try to help out the population and don't destroy too much of Mosul in the fight, this should all help with running the city after [IS] is defeated because it will give a new and positive image to the security forces and the government that freed them."
When Mosul fell... the Golden Division remained active, resisting the advance - and held the line

In its early days the Golden Division didn't have a completely spotless record, with allegations ranging from political assassinations to being "a sort of Praetorian guard to former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki", said Sebastien A Roblin, a freelance journalist specialising in international affairs and military history.

"However," Roblin added, "the unit has gone on to handle a lot of the difficult combat operations the regular Iraqi army couldn't. For example, when Mosul fell to [IS] in June 2014 and 15,000 Iraqi troops fled the city, the Golden Division remained active, resisting the advance - and held the line. They actually helped blunt one prong of the [IS] offensive, at a moment when Iraq's military seemed close to crumbling."

This, he argues, is why it was natural for Baghdad to give the "murderously difficult job of reclaiming Mosul one street block at a time" to these elite soldiers. 

And it hasn't been easy for them. These Iraqi special forces are suffering very heavy casualties.

"If the division is rendered combat ineffective by the fighting in Mosul, then Iraq will have lost its elite 'fire brigade' unit in its moment of triumph," Roblin warned.

"And the problem is there are a lot of questions of 'what next' after IS is driven out of Mosul. There's the relation between the government and the Kurdish region in question - and there's also the Sunni-Shia issue to address.

"Most observers are not optimistic about the Iraqi government's ability to handle these issues deftly." 

In particular, Roblin identifies the importance of preventing armed Shia elements from mounting reprisals against the Nineveh region's Sunnis after IS is eventually routed.

"It's here that a less corrupt, less sectarian unit like the Golden Division could be valuable as a means of de-escalating the situation, and perhaps even performing its original counter-terrorism mission of preventing suicide bombings and attacks that inflame inter-communal hatred," said Roblin.

"But that will require the unit to be intact and effective after the conventional battle of Mosul is won."

Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon