AL ASAD AIR BASE, Iraq –
While combat operations in Mosul and Raqqah dominate today’s headlines, the fight to destroy the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria extends far beyond these two cities. In Iraq’s Al Anbar province, which encompasses much of the country’s western territory, the fight is still on-going and Task Force Al Asad plays a key role in enabling the total destruction of ISIS in this region.
TFAA, commanded by U.S. Marine Corps Col. Fridrik Fridriksson, epitomizes the current coalition in the fight against ISIS. The task force, whose mission is to advise and assist (A&A) the Jazira al-Badiyah Operations Center and the 7th Iraqi Army Division, is a vital component of Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve’s efforts to destroy ISIS, and for TFAA specifically, within their Al Anbar-centric battlespace.
“Now, the Iraqis are doing everything,” Fridriksson said. “What we’re doing is trying to enable them. Not fight for them, but with them … these are truly going to be Iraqi victories.”
The coalition effort is palpable while traveling around the task force compound with numerous patterns and colors of camouflage moving about the concrete barriers and bunkers among a mix of permanent, semi-permanent, and temporary structures. While TFAA is run by a U.S. Marine, as are many of the primary staff, just under 10 percent of the entire team are U.S. Marines.
Upon entering TFAA’s headquarters building, the coalition effort becomes further apparent as offices are filled by U.S. Marines and Soldiers working alongside their Danish and British army counterparts. The task force proudly displays their unit logo consisting of a lion, the English word for asad, in front of an American, Iraqi, Danish, and British flag.
These partners, which also fall under Fridriksson’s command and who make up a preponderance of the personnel, are vital to mission success.
“This is not just joint, this is a coalition,” Fridriksson said.
Fridriksson went on to explain that being able to work in this type of environment with all services from the Department of Defense and with over a half dozen different countries has been absolutely rewarding.
Over the past eight months, TFAA has supported the Iraqis through the Building Partner Capacity mission with training which includes infantry tactics, logistics, engineering, and maintenance among others, as well as support to operations. Combined, these efforts improved the ISF’s fighting capacity in the Euphrates River Valley (ERV).
“This is their fight, we’ve got to be able to support that the best way we can,” said U.S. Marine Corps Maj. William Warkentin, operations officer for TFAA.
The A&A mission support largely involves intelligence, surveillance, and fire support resulting in well over 100 strikes on the enemy and supporting over a dozen different operations. TFAA is able to follow these operations from their combat operations center in order to best support their partners. This includes both support in offensive operations as well as in self-defense of the Iraqi forces.
“When you catch the enemy trying to attack your Iraqi partners and you’re able to stop that … that’s one of the best takeaways, you seeing the success on the battlefield when you know you have saved Iraqi lives,” Warkentin said.
Offensive operations conducted by their partner forces are depicted on maps hanging in the Task Force’s work spaces. On these maps, the shrinking of ISIS in Al Anbar to this point in the operation date back to the first Task Force rotation in 2015.
“By, with, and through is embodied here at the Task Force,” Warkentin said.
Over the course of the task force’s deployment, they conducted more than 130 key leader engagements with the ISF in support of the A&A mission. These engagements improve relationships between TFAA personnel and the ISF, allowing them to work together and determine how the task force can better support the Iraqis and their mission.
“Breaking bread with our Iraqi partners is an important part of a key-leadership engagement,” Warkentin said. “If you’re not sitting down with the generals and the operations planners, then you can’t really do that enable piece … When they see how committed we are, it makes it easier for them to open up to you… Being here for nine months, you see that relationship develop, you become friends.”
While not directly tied to the A&A mission of TFAA, the task force also oversees base development for CJTF-OIR in order to enable their operations in the Euphrates River Valley, now and into the future, explained U.S. Marine Corps Col. Matthew Seay, TFAA Deputy Commander. Many personnel of the task force have worked throughout their deployment developing and implementing this plan.
U.S. Marine Corps, Army, Air Force and coalition combat engineers throughout the task force operate heavy equipment daily in support of this effort. These include laying foundations for new structures, repairing weathered runways, and improving force protection measures.
The U.S. Marine Corps combat engineers are assigned to Marine Wing Support Squadron 372, deployed to the Middle East as part of the Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force-Crisis Response-Central Command, the Marine Corps’ crisis response force for U.S. Central Command. These Marines were sourced to TFAA for engineering operations in support of the base’s master plan.
“It’s meaningful work, and it’s getting done,” said 1st Lt. Khari Ford, the SPMAGTF-CR-CC engineering detachment officer-in-charge. “Instantly there’s a number of sites that as soon as we finish, someone lives there or moves in to work there. You know that everything you do, it matters to someone. It’s something that’s supporting the fight.”
The quickest a site was occupied after completion was 20 minutes, Ford said, highlighting the demand for their work.
Meanwhile, the security of Al Asad Air Base must be maintained. A combined team of U.S. Marines work alongside the British and Danish armies to ensure the perimeter and the safety of those on the base. The security force Marines are assigned to 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, also attached to TFAA from the SPMAGTF-CR-CC.
“They are part of the front line as far as advising and assisting the Iraqis,” said U.S. Marine Corps 1st Lt. Paul Queen, 1/7’s TFAA security force detachment officer-in-charge.
Queen deployed to Al Asad on a previous deployment in early 2016 and said the progress since then is evident.
“[The Marines] can see tangible results to their efforts… There is much more integration between the Iraqis and the Task Force,” he said.
Their mission is to provide security for TFAA to “allow the Task Force to engage with the Iraqis and enable them and their mission,” Queen said. In doing so, their daily operations consist of conducting base-defense patrols, providing security for key-leader engagements, standing guard at posts, serving as a quick reaction force, and exchanging infantry tactics, techniques, and procedures with the 7th IAD.
Queen and his Marines are part of TFAA’s multi-national security force team that is so tightly integrated that they share the same building and office space, much like the Task Force’s headquarters.
“[There is] integration between three different countries and four different services at the company level, Queen said when asked about the experience. “It’s been phenomenal.”
TFAA will continue to play an important role in Al Anbar as they continue to A&A the ISF. As Fridriksson’s deployment comes to an end and another commander arrives, the Task Force will continue supporting the JOC and 7th IAD when they arrive and assume the mission.
Fridriksson noted the need for the task force to adapt in the future as the fight changes.
“The Task Force will morph. It will change. We have to be able to shape, change, and turn, and be as flexible and responsive to Iraqis as they need us to be,” he said.
Task Force Al Asad stood up in 2015 and is currently on its fourth rotation. Their mission is to advise and assist and building partner capacity with the Iraqi security forces in Al Anbar province as they move to destroy ISIS in Iraq. The task force commander and much of his primary staff are U.S. Marines, but they are a minority of the overall population given vast support from the Coalition including the U.S., British, and Danish Armies. TFAA operates in support of Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, the global coalition to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria.