The narrative and the momentum in Iraq has definitely
shifted from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant to Iraq and its coalition
allies, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said at the conclusion of his
latest trip here.
This was Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford’s fourth visit to the
country since being named as DoD’s highest ranking military officer. When he
came to Iraq in August last year, ISIL still controlled the plot and momentum
in Iraq and Syria.
In August, he said, “the narrative was that there was
inevitability in ISIL’s success in Iraq, the confidence in Iraqi security
forces was really low.”
As recently as May 2015, the terror group was still grabbing
ground from Iraq, Dunford told journalists traveling with him.
The chairman said he now uses the negative reports from Iraq
and Syria in August 2015 as the baseline of the efforts in the country.
“I am not unmindful of the challenges, nor am I going to
blow sunshine ... ,” he said, “but when I look at August and I look today there
[are] a couple of things that are indisputable,” he said. “No. 1 is ISIL holds
far less ground than they held last year. No. 2, we’ve had a significant impact
on their resources.”
A third change is the impact operations have had on ISIL’s
senior leaders. And finally, “their freedom of movement has been severely
limited,” the chairman said, and the number of foreign fighters that has been
able to get in the country has been significantly cut.
“Another thing that is indisputable is that Iraqi security
forces have gone from ‘Hey, when are they going to start doing something?’ to
now having secured Ramadi and most of Hit and they are moving out the Euphrates
River Valley farther into Anbar province,” Dunford said.
Advancing Up the Tigris
Iraqi forces are also moving up the Tigris River Valley and
are now just south of Makhmur and starting to establish positions “that will
ultimately lead to operations against ISIL in Mosul,” he said.
The trajectory is good for the Iraqi forces, Dunford said.
Success breeds success, and Iraqi forces are having successes against the
terror group. They are also applying pressure against the group across the
country, he noted.
Coalition forces in Iraq operate at the express request of
the Iraqi government. “We’re filling in the gaps of the Iraqi security forces
that are doing the fighting,” the chairman said. “We didn’t fight for them in
Ramadi and we didn’t fight for them in Hit, and with two exceptions, we didn’t
bleed for them. They have been bleeding themselves and conducting the
And, Dunford said, he expects more progress. He met with
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi yesterday. “In terms of level of
cooperation, and his willingness to accept our support and work with us, we
have a partner in Baghdad,” he said.
Abadi Reaches Out to Kurds
Abadi not only accepted the forces the coalition has offered
but also a U.S. increase in forces, Dunford said.
“Frankly, we spoke last night about the need for cooperation
with the Kurds and I was able to deliver a message today to President [of the
Iraqi Kurdistan region] Masoud Barzani that Prime Minister Abadi would work
with his folks to get a plan developed for Mosul right away, and that he would
consult with Barzani soonest to ensure that all the stakeholders agreed upon
the plan,” the chairman said.
This is a significant change, and will help all the
stakeholders in actions against ISIL, he added. “There are definitely
challenges and Mosul is not going to be tomorrow,” Dunford said. “There are
real political issues that need to be worked through in the coming weeks.”
First, the chairman said, there has to be what Barzani
called “a plan for the day after Mosul.” All players need to know what the plan
is after Mosul is liberated, he said. Looming questions to be answered include
determining who patrols the neighborhoods, who ensures people in the city of
around 1 million are fed and who ensures ISIL doesn’t just go to ground inside
the city, Dunford said.
But it is more than that, the chairman added. “The Sunnis
have to be enfranchised,” he said. “There’s got to be some accommodation for
Kurdish interests with the government in Baghdad dominated by, obviously, the
That’s not news, Dunford said, it’s what has to happen “to
get to a multi-sectarian unified Iraq.”
Not all this has to happen before liberating Mosul, “but
there has to be an agreed-upon grand vision as the detailed plan for Mosul is
written,” he said.
Sequence for Liberation
The next step in the sequence is the continued generation of
forces for the operation, the chairman said.
Dunford stressed that the offensive against ISIL in Mosul
has already started, even though Iraqi troops are not yet directly attacking
“It’s like tightening a noose,” he said. “We tighten the
noose with positioning forces. We’re tightening it with strikes. We’re
tightening it with targeted strikes against leadership and we’re stopping the
flow of fighters between Iraq and Syria.”
Under the best circumstances, the chairman said he expects
to see Iraqi forces continue to move up the river toward Mosul and make their
way into the city to secure it. “It will take time,” Dunford said. “This is
incredibly difficult and complex. This is a million people in a complex urban
terrain with a determined enemy who has had a long time to prepare. This is
going to be a tough fight.”
(Follow Jim Garamone on Twitter: @GaramoneDoDNews)