The U.S. Army is preparing to send a division headquarters to Baghdad, according to recent reports. The HQ deployment could, in theory, be the Pentagon’s way of preparing the ground for a much larger contingent of U.S. troops.
But probably not. The Army frequently deploys headquarters without also sending the thousands of combat troops who normally accompany an HQ. “Nothing to see here,” says Dr. Douglas Ollivant, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno announced the deployment of the 500-person headquarters of the Kansas-based 1st Infantry Division just days before the Pentagon launched air strikes on Islamic State fighters in Syria on Sept. 23.
Islamic State militants control much of eastern Syria and, in June, invaded northern Iraq. The U.S. has rushed more than 1,000 advisers to Iraq to help local forces fight the Islamists. The 1st Infantry Division leadership team is the latest addition to the advisory force.
“They will have command and control of ongoing advise and assist efforts in support of Iraqi and Peshmerga forces, and continue to help us all degrade and destroy [Islamic State],” said Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman.
A division headquarters—the Army has a couple dozen of them—normally travels with more than 10,000 infantry, armor and artillery soldiers. But HQs can travel and work on their own, without all their usual brigades and battalions.
Just last year, Washington sent part of the 1st Armored Division’s leadership team to Jordan to plan for a possible mission in Syria.
At the time, Washington was worried that the regime in Damascus was on the verge of collapse. The ground combat branch’s headquarters could have ended up commanding thousands more troops providing humanitarian aid and stability in the event the war-torn country imploded.
Syrian president Bashar Al Assad has stubbornly clung to power and the 1st Armored Division’s HQ avoided a wider war. Now a year later, Iraq is the country in dire straits.
The Pentagon actually already has an HQ-style unit in Iraq. Army Maj. Gen. Dana Pittard, a combat veteran of the Iraq occupation, has been running the division-level Joint Forces Land Component Command in Baghdad since June.
Ollivant says the 1st Infantry Division’s leadership element will probably replace Pittard’s team.
The deployment is “more about getting the cohesive, full-capability team in place” that can stay in Iraq for as long as they’re needed, according to Ollivant. “Every person Pittard brought from Kuwait has a day job back there for which they are needed.”
The additional soldiers in Baghdad will most likely continue to coordinate the training of Iraqi troops, the delivery of weapons and the sharing of intelligence that is already taking place.
Of course, the Pentagon’s plan could always change suddenly and without notice. Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, America’s top military officer, stressed that ground troops are always an option.
“If there are threats to the United States [coming out of Iraq] then I, of course, will go back to the president and make the recommendation that may include the use of U.S. military ground forces,” Dempsey told a group of U.S. senators.