Iraq’s Counterterrorism Service (CTS) and USSOF

Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service CTS

Over the past few years, the U.S. has moved its focus from the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT) and long running counterinsurgency efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan to strategic competition. The emphasis of the national security establishment and the Department of Defense has been on our chief competitors in the global arena. Of primary importance is the threat posed by China in the Indo-Pacific region and by Russia in Eastern Europe. This redirection toward great power competition with Russia and China has us moving away from our involvement in the Middle East.

A recent article published by the Middle East Institute points out that the Middle East region is still a volatile place that deserves our attention. Authored by Gen. (ret.) Joseph Votel and Col. (ret.) Christopher Costa, the article argues for continued support of Iraq’s premier counter terrorism unit by U.S. Special Operations Forces.

Iran is still supporting its proxy forces in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere in the region. The Houthis of Yemen are wreaking havoc on the shipping lanes in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. The conflict in Gaza could very likely spill over into neighboring countries. The incidents of attacks against U.S. personnel and facilities in the Middle East has grown significantly since the Hamas terrorist attacks against Israel in October 2023 and subsequent invasion of Gaza by Israel.

Currently, the U.S. is involved in negotiations with Iraq about future U.S. force presence in Iraq. The Higher Military Commission (HMC) is one of the mechanisms for discussions on the continued fight against the Islamic State. To many outside observers – this seems like negotiations for a withdrawal or reduction of western forces.

During the August 2023 U.S.-Iraq Joint Security Cooperation Dialogue (JSCD) the United States and Iraq committed to launch the Higher Military Commission (HMC) on a mutually determined date (DOD Release, 8 Aug 2023). On January 25, 2024, the beginning of the HMC officially took place (DOD Transcript, 25 Jan 2024). The HMC process will discuss the evolution of the Coalition mission while taking into consideration that one result will be that the Islamic State can never resurge.

Currently there are 24 nations that are contributing to the Coalition Joint Task Force and the mission of Operation Inherent Resolve. There are about 2,500 American troops in the Iraq region as well has hundreds from other European countries. The main focus of the Coalition is the enduring defeat of ISIS and the advise-assist-enable missions with partner forces – Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), Kurdish Security Forces, and Iraqi SOF units.

It is quite possible that the Coalitions personnel strength and combat enabling capabilities (ISR, strike, etc.) will be reduced as a result of the HMC process. One important consideration in the talks should be the continued relationship between U.S. Special Operations Forces (USSOF) and the Iraqi Counterterrorism Force (CTS).

This relationship has spanned twenty years – beginning in 2004 with the establishment of the Iraqi Counter Terrorist Force (ICTF) and the 36th Commando Battalion. Over those past twenty years these two units have evolved into one of the premier counterterrorism units in the Middle East. The CTS has performed admirably over the past two decades and remains one of the few professional non-sectarian units in the Iraqi security establishment.

As the talks between U.S. and Iraqi negotiators proceed it is important that one of the provisions of any resulting agreement be the continued relationship between USSOF and the CTS. This should include the presence of USSOF in Iraq and the authorities to continue the advisory and support mission.

Gen. (ret.) Joseph Votel and Col. (ret.) Christopher Costa argue that “the CTS is a strategic hedge against violent extremist organizations in the Middle East”, USSOF has had an enduring relationship with the CTS, and a “strong CTS strengthens a sovereign Iraq”. They provide three recommendations on how the U.S. can continue to support the Iraqi Counterterrorism Service.

Gen. Votel is the former commander of USSOCOM and CENTCOM. Col. Costa is a former career intelligence officer who served with Special Operations Forces. Their article is an excellent read about the Iraqi Counterterrorism Service and why the U.S. should continue supporting it in the future.

“Maintaining the best thing the US built in Iraq: Continued support to the Iraqi Counterterrorism Service”, Middle East Institute, February 26, 2024.


Photo: Iraqi Counterterrorism Service (CTS), photo by PFC Anthony Zendejas, CJTF-OIR, Apri 4, 2018.

About John Friberg 198 Articles
John Friberg is the Editor and Publisher of SOF News. He is a retired Command Chief Warrant Officer (CW5 180A) with 40 years service in the U.S. Army Special Forces with active duty and reserve components.