On March 19, Staff Sgt. Louis F. Cardin, 27, became the first Marine to die in combat during the ongoing battle against the so-called Islamic State jihadi group when a rocket barrage hit his fire base in northern Iraq.
Several other Marines were injured, which highlights the dangers and risks associated with the campaign to eliminate what U.S. military leaders like to refer to as “the parent tumor.”
Friday afternoon, I sat down with Tampa’s highest-ranking Marine, Lt. Gen. William D. Beydler, to talk about the attack and the role of the Marines in the fight against the jihadis in Iraq and around the region.
As commander of Marine Corps Forces Central Command, Beydler is the conduit between Marine Commandant Robert Neller, the four-star general in charge of providing trained and equipped Marines, and Army Gen. Joseph Votel, the four-star Centcom commander in charge of deploying them. The command has about 200 Marines at its MacDill headquarters.
“Right now, my role is to make sure the almost 6,000 Marines in the region, both on ship and land-based, are optimized in the missions they assigned,” says Beydler, who took command of Marcent in October. “Right now, things are pretty busy. There is a lot going on in the region, most of it centered on Iraq and Syria.”
But there are 18 other countries in the region, which stretches east from Egypt to Kazhakstan and includes Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan, Iran and the Gulf States.
Beydler supports two groups of Marines who are supporting Iraqi security forces in Operation Inherent Resolve. One is a Marine Expeditionary Unit, or MEU, currently the 26th MEU. The other has a name that makes even Beydler scratch his head — the Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force — Crisis Response — Central Command, or SPMAGTF-CR-CC in milspeak.
“It’s a bonus if you can get that right,” Beydler says.
Cardin was with the 26th MEU, and was one of about 200 Marines assigned to the Kara Soar Counter Fire Complex, which used to be known as Fire Base Bell. Their mission was to fire off the 155 mm howitzers, Beydler says, providing what the military calls “counter fires” support, which in English means blasting the bad guys who are blasting you.
“We are trying to help facilitate the success of the Iraqi security forces against Daesh/ISIL,” Beydler says. “And the way we can do that, and the way we have been doing that, is through fires.”
Most of those fires have been provided by fixed-wing tactical aircraft, says Beydler, but are now also being provided by the mighty 155s.
The complex, whose existence was revealed only after Cardin’s death, is in the Iraqi town of Mahkmour, about 70 miles southeast of Mosul, the city that was once home to about nearly 700,000 people before it was captured by Daesh in June 2014.
Mosul is the target of a planned attack by Iraqi security forces and Kurdish peshmerga troops, but the offensive has sputtered and now the Pentagon and White House are considering adding more support for the looming battle.
Beydler says artillery batteries like the one Cardin was with are being fired to provide force protection as Iraqi forces shift their emphasis north toward that city,
So why artillery?
Aircraft can only fly so long and their efforts are often diminished by bad weather.
Howitzers, on the other hand, “can fire 24-7, day, night and in all weather and so forth,” Beydler says, adding that, of course, the optimum mix is when you have both “ground and air fires.”
Two weeks ago, Joint Chiefs Chairman and Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford said the activity at the complex was not opening the door to combat operations. So I asked Beydler if he sees it as increasing the footprint of U.S. troops on the ground and whether he sees any additional risk in the counter mission.
“It represents a commitment to the counter-ISIL fight,” he says, succinctly. “The risk is there.”
Whether the complex will support the actual assault on Mosul “remains to be seen,” Beydler adds. However, the M777A2 Howitzers used by Cardin and his crewmates only have a range of just over 20 miles.
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In addition to serving as a “theater mobile reserve,” able to respond to crises as they pop up in the Centcom region, the Marines overseen by Beydler are helping teach the Iraqis the finer points of combat operations.
Their missions are taking place at bases in Al Taqaddum and Al Asad, Beydler says.
Operating out of Camp Manion in Al Taqaddum, Marines from the SPMAGTF-CR-CC helped train Iraqi forces to take part in the successful mission to recapture the city of Ramadi in December. They also helped provide fire support.
“I think what we did was very beneficial to the Iraqi security forces, who did the ground fighting, who did the counter attack in Ramadi, who did the clearing operations,” Beydler says. “But we brought our capabilities to bear in a way that allowed them to be successful.”
“Fires,” says Beydler. “Ground and air, but primarily air.”
Marines also helped advise and assist Iraqi military leaders, Beydler says.
“I won’t go into operational specifics,” he says. “But a big part of advise and assist is to help them think through the complexities of a very difficult tactical situation. We help them, based on our experiences, think though a very, very demanding and complex fight on the ground.”
The Marines were helping Iraqi officers, from the lieutenant colonel-equivalent up to general officers, Beydler says.
At Al Asad, which is more conducive to such training, the Marines are teaching the Iraqis small unit combat techniques.
So how capable are the Iraqis?
“Like any force, it is a bit unit dependent,” he says. “They have been successful, that is a fact. Daesh has not had a tactical success since October of last year. They have been beaten in every tactical engagement that we have observed with the Iraqi security forces and the fact is, they have made progress in the Euphrates River valley and other regions.”
Security at all the locations is “stable and manageable,” Beydler says. “That doesn’t mean to say there’s no risk. There is risk with everything we do in the military, not the least of which are the things we are currently doing in the fight in Iraq and Syria.”
Security, however, is always in flux, Beydler says, influenced by the Iraqi security forces, the enemy and even the weather.
“We are doing everything we can, within that which we can control, to improve our defensive posture,” Beydler says.
The Marines also stand ready to rescue downed fliers. And they help protect the embassy area in Baghdad. What’s more, beyond the fight against Daesh in Iraq and Syria, there are 18 other countries to worry about in the region.
Jordan and Lebanon are being affected by the spillover, Beydler says, adding that the jihadi group is also moving more and more through Egypt. Then there’s the bloody civil war in Yemen, Iranian activities in the region, and Afghanistan. As Gen. Votel’s “theater mobile reserve and crisis response force, there is not much in the region that the Marines don’t pay attention to,” Beydler says.
As for what he expects under Votel, who favored a transregional approach to the fight against jihadis and other violent extremists during his time at Socom, Beydler says it is really too early to tell.
“I think that what we will see is that with any change, maybe some new ideas, new approaches based on the background he brings into this fight. Some of that is still to be determined. Gen. Votel has been in command 36 hours.”
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Shorty after addressing members of his command, gathered in formation under the hot sun outside their MacDill headquarters, Beydler stops to talk more about Cardin,
“The bottom line is that ... we know what the risks are. The staff sergeant was doing what he was trained to do. What he loved as a professional Marine. Doing it with Marines in his gun crew. But he knew full well what the risks were and he was doing what he thought was important.”
For a moment, Beydler pauses, because for him, this is deeply personal. As a leader. And as a father.
“Being the father of two children, both of whom are in the Marine Corps, I think about those things very, very carefully. And the things we are doing right now, are in my estimation, vitally important to the nation.”
As if to drive that point home, he repeats the message.
“Vitally important to the nation. So, that’s worth fighting for and it is worth taking the associated risk. As a father, it is horrible. Terrible. You can only imagine. You can only imagine.”
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The Pentagon announced no new deaths in its ongoing operations.
There have been 2,347 U.S. troop deaths in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, 21 U.S. troop deaths and one civilian Department of Defense employee death in support of the follow-up Operation Freedom’s Sentinel in Afghanistan, and 12 troop deaths and one civilian death in support of Operation Inherent Resolve, the fight against the Islamic State.