Over the coming weeks, France will boost its support of the battle against the Islamic State terror group by dispatching an extra 40 soldiers to train Iraqi forces in Baghdad and Kurdish peshmerga forces stationed in the Kurdish capital of Erbil in northern Iraq.
French army spokesman Gilles Jaron announced the deployment at a press conference on Thursday, emphasizing that the French troops are being deployed in an advisory role. They are not expected to be "confronting the enemy directly," he said. Canadian army officials recently revealed that Canadian troops had been involved in a gunfire exchange with Islamic State fighters.
The new deployment is forecasted to last at least three months, and will consist of two separate operations. Two operational training units of around ten troops each will be dispatched to Erbil and Baghdad to deliver a three-month training program to Iraqi and Kurdish soldiers fighting alongside coalition forces. Their first order of business will be to train Iraqi forces to respond to the rapidly escalating threat of improvised explosive devices — the homemade bombs and landmines favored by Islamic militants to attack military convoys. IEDs are currently the "main issue" faced by Iraqi troops, according to former air force general and former French defense ministry advisor Michel Asencio.
Another 20 troops will be sent to Baghdad to advise Iraqi military leaders. A spokesman for the French Chief of the Defense Staff confirmed to VICE News that 20 "experts" would be deployed at a later date, with the mission to "advise on planning and logistics."
The French army sent a dozen special forces personnel to Erbil last August to train Kurdish fighters in the operation of machine guns and artillery. It launched Operation Chammal the following September, an ongoing military operation to contain the expansion of the Islamic State and support the Iraqi army. The mission, currently mobilizes 800 troops and consists mainly of airstrikes, is part of the international coalition's efforts in the region.
Nine French Rafale aircraft are stationed at the Al Dhafra air base in the United Arab Emirates, while six of the country's Mirage jets are based in Jordan. France has also sent an anti-aircraft frigate to the Persian Gulf, and recent reports have indicated that the country's flagship aircraft carrier, the Charles-de-Gaulle, could join operations in the region in the coming months.
Defense expert Jean-Pierre Maulny, the deputy director of the French Institute for International and Strategic Relations (IRIS), explained to VICE News that the French army will carry out three different training programs.
The first, he said, is "leadership training, and guidance on how to organize a unit training around its command" — in other words, smoothing out any authority issues between junior officers and army commanders. The second involves equipment training. In the third component, French forces will provide training in line with France's military doctrine, sharing general strategic expertise and military knowledge with the Iraqi army.
The French army is following in the footsteps of the United States. There are currently some 2,000 American troops stationed in Iraq to train and advise the country's security forces and help them carry out more precise airstrikes against the enemy. US Gen. Dana Pittard remarked to AFP earlier this month that the campaign's aim was "to train confident and competent combat forces."
Maulny expects the US-French training coalition will work closely together to avoid any overlap and to share responsibilities.
"The Americans and the French will divide up the workload," he said. "Training will not be standardized, since both militaries have different military doctrines."
Maulny described the effort as assisting the development of Iraqi forces, which when sufficient will allow foreign troops to withdraw.
"It's what we did in Mali," he said. "The army comes in like a fireman to extinguish the blaze, and then trains units that are then able to secure and defend their own territory."
He drew a parallel with the Afghan army, which in 2008 had only 70,000 soldiers. Today it has 250,000 troops.
Asencio said that it is crucial for the Iraqi army to unify its military.
"We've been trying to train the Iraqi army for 10 years," he remarked, "and we have no intention of staying there 20 years."
He described the peshmerga and Iraqi forces as "excellent fighters when they operate in small tribe-like groups of 150. However, the Iraqi army has a very hard time managing a regiment of 1,500 troops. We must start by training a squad [of a few soldiers] before moving on to an entire regiment, to ensure a cohesive army."
The main priority in Iraq, Asencio added, is to "train police officers in order to re-establish security and regain the people's trust." But the former general thinks that simply having aircraft and an army is not enough to accomplish the task at hand.
"We need to provide the people with a sense of security," he said. "These regions are being threatened from within their borders, hence the importance of a well-trained and efficient police force."
Another prime concern is strengthening the country's intelligence services.
"We need human intelligence in order to infiltrate the jihadist group," Asencio emphasized. "Having boots on the ground will allow us to carry out more precise airstrikes and avoid collateral damage."
Follow Pierre Longeray on Twitter: @PLongeray
Image: Operation Chammal in Irak/via État-Major des Armées: Armée de l'Air