Fort Bragg troops play key role in US strategy
By DREW BROOKS | The Fayetteville Observer, N.C. (Tribune News Service) | Published: November 17, 2015
The terrorist attacks in Paris spurred renewed questions about U.S. military strategy to defeat the Islamic State.
Fort Bragg troops play key roles in the country's current strategy.
But some, including North Carolina's senior senator, are calling for change in light of the attacks that killed at least 129 people in France.
Speaking at the G20 summit in Antalya, Turkey, on Monday, President Obama resisted the call for change, saying the nation was already doing what many claim needs to be done, short of direct combat.
"The strategy that we are putting forward is the strategy that ultimately is going to work," he said, "but as I said from the start, it is going to take time."
Fort Bragg troops are deeply involved in the fight against the extremist group also known as ISIS or ISIL.
The 82nd Airborne Division headquarters has about 400 troops in Iraq, overseeing the training of soldiers there to fight on the front lines against the extremist militant group.
That includes forces that recently retook the Iraq village of Sinjar, near the border of Syria, that officials said was a vital supply line and important tactical location connecting the city of Mosul, which is under ISIS control, to the main logistics and command and control center for the Islamic State inside Syria.
In Iraq, the Fort Bragg paratroopers are working alongside more than 100 French soldiers, 82nd Airborne Division officials said Monday. An untold number of Fort Bragg-based special operators also are in the country, directly advising Iraq's elite forces.
Their role was highlighted last month, when Master Sgt. Joshua L. Wheeler - a member of the secretive 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment - Delta, better known by Delta Force - was fatally injured during a mission that rescued about 70 hostages from imminent death at the hands of the extremist militant group in Kirkuk province.
Those efforts have been supported by airstrikes against ISIS locations, targeting leaders and supply lines.
On Monday, Obama said those airstrikes were intensifying and that he had authorized additional Special Forces soldiers to improve coordination from the ground.
But the reliance on airstrikes as the only direct impact to the extremist group has been criticized by some, including Sen. Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican who is chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Burr said the attacks reminded the nation "once again of ISIL's brutality - a brutality that is not only a feature of daily life inside their so-called caliphate, but also is rapidly becoming their leading export and their vision for the world."
On CBS's "Face the Nation,'' Burr further referred to the airstrikes as "pin pricks."
"We've got to have a strategy," he said. "We don't have a strategy in Syria as it relates to ISIL."
Burr said he was hopeful France would invoke Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which calls on NATO partners to come together in defense of a member country.
The United States invoked that article following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
If that happens, Burr said he hoped the United States would be willing to make a commitment and be willing to lead.
"The American people want to eliminate this threat," he said. "We should be prepared to bring whatever to the table."
"You can't do this with 3,500 Americans in an advisory role," he said.
Training in Iraq
Days before the attacks, the commanding general of the 82nd Airborne Division outlined some of the progress made in the fight against the Islamic State during remarks from Baghdad.
Maj. Gen. Richard D. Clarke is deployed there as commander of Combined Joint Forces Land Component Command - Iraq, which is tasked with overseeing the training and equipping of Iraqi security forces and advising and assisting those forces as they conduct operations.
Clarke said the coalition training sites, spread across Iraq, were "maxed out" with Iraqi forces.
To date, nearly 16,500 such forces, including Peshmerga fighters, have been trained by the coalition, doubling the number since the division deployed in June. Much of that training was conducted by the 82nd Airborne's 3rd Brigade Combat Team, which had deployed roughly 1,300 soldiers to train Iraqi forces until September.
Clarke said the Iraqi soldiers weren't unlike their American counterparts. He said some are nervous, or have a bit of trepidation.
But, he said, they are determined.
"They say 'We want to go out and fight. We want to take back our country,'" Clarke said. "Things like that make me a little more positive about where we are and where we're going."
Clarke said he was confident in the newly trained force's ability to handle the fight.
The 82nd Airborne Division headquarters deployed earlier this year for a nine-month tour and is not expected to return to Fort Bragg until March, when it will be replaced by soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division.
Clarke made clear that while the paratroopers were not in direct combat - he described the mission as "fighting with someone else's fist" - that many were taking the mission personally.''
Attacks prompt concerns
The Paris attacks hit close to home for some on Fort Bragg.
On social media, soldiers joined others in changing avatars to show support for their French allies.
In a statement on its Facebook page, the 82nd Airborne Division extended its "deepest condolences to the people in Paris and across France who were affected by the terrorist attacks."
On Monday, a Fort Bragg spokesman echoed those remarks.
"Being that many of our families know the loss of loved ones due to terrorist activities, the citizens of Paris and France are in our minds and hearts as well as in our thoughts and prayers," said Tom McCollum, garrison public affairs officer.
The attacks also brought concerns that local troops could be deployed en masse or that the installation, and surrounding community, could be a target.
Some of those concerns were in response to months-old news stories on a so-called ISIS "hit list" that were circulating Monday on social media. That list, culled from public sources, included addresses of potential targets, including some in Fayetteville.
It was mentioned by at least one city leader during a discussion on whether to allow members of the City Council to carry concealed weapons onto city property.
Fort Bragg, the nation's largest military installation, is home to several key commands, as well as much of the nation's quick reaction and special operations forces.
McCollum said he could not comment on specific actions on Fort Bragg following the attacks.
"Whenever our elected officials have made the decision to deploy forces from Fort Bragg, the units on Fort Bragg have been and will be prepared," he said. "That is how our government operates and it has served the country well since its founding."
The lack of specific comment extended to security measures.
In the past, Fort Bragg's anti-terrorism office has worked with local officials to better prepare for potential attacks.
Fort Bragg conducts regular drills that practice potential scenarios.
"Bragg makes a good target," one of the installation's anti-terrorism officers said in 2011. "And it pulls Fayetteville into the fire zone."
McCollum said Fort Bragg asks the community to "stay vigilant and report suspicious activities on Fort Bragg by calling 90-REACT (907- 3228)."
That hotline, he said, was created to quickly coordinate first responders in the event of an attack on post.
Also on Monday, North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory joined a growing list of state leaders asking the federal government not to send Syrian refugees to their states.
The Obama administration previously announced it would increase the number of refugees being allowed into the country, including at least 10,000 who were displaced by the ongoing civil war in Syria.
McCrory, along with leaders from Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, Texas and other states, are now balking at the prospect of refugees settling in their states.
In a statement Monday, McCrory said in light of the attacks "and the very real possibility that one of the terrorists entered France as a recent refugee," he would request that no more refugees be sent to the state.
Obama said the country must be willing to accept the refugees, while also working to ensure the safety of the American people.
Many of the refugees, he said, are themselves victims of terrorism.
"Slamming our door in their faces would be a betrayal of our values," Obama said.