WASHINGTON — The commander of U.S. Central Command is impressed by the increasing level of confidence among Iraqi leaders in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
Army Gen. Joseph L. Votel said the Iraqi government and its military are confident in the approach they are taking and their ability to accomplish the mission. Votel spoke about his command with NBC’s Richard Engel at the Aspen Security Summit in Colorado today.
“There is a growing level of confidence that the military operations that they are doing are having the effects that we desire against ISIL,” Votel said.
He pointed to the successes in Fallujah and Qayyarah, noting the offensives there have pushed back ISIL. “You are seeing the strategy in both Iraq and Syria where we are trying to present ISIL with many dilemmas,” Votel said.
The terror group, he said, has to deal with coalition attacks in both Iraq and Syria, as well as the taking out of key leaders. And, he added, ISIL must be concerned about attacks on oil-processing plants and its other revenue-generating streams.
“When we have the ability to do that, it gives us the ability to overwhelm them and makes it more difficult for them to respond,” Votel said. “Part of our strategy has been simultaneity, and it is working on the ground.”
In Iraq, he said, the next big target is Mosul -- the second-largest city in the country. “We will go to Mosul when it is time to go to Mosul,” Votel said.
The offensive against ISIL in Mosul is not simply about the military -- that plan is already in place, Votel said. “The more important part of going to Mosul is the political-governance plan; it is the stabilization plan and it is the humanitarian plan,” he said. “Those three things have to be put in place before we can execute the military operation.”
Votel emphasized that the U.S.-coalition approach in Iraq and Syria depends upon partnership. “We are working through our partners,” he said. “It is about them doing it this time.”
The coalition assists its partners with training and advice, but ultimately local forces decide how to fight, Votel said. The general praised Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abaidi, saying he had a good grasp of the tactical and operational environment in his country. He also said the Iraqi leader has so far been able to handle the political demands of the job.
Exploiting intelligence has been extraordinarily important in the fight against ISIL in Iraq and Syria, Votel said. Experts are sifting through a trove of intelligence gathered during fighting in Manbij, Syria, he said. The intel, he added, gives coalition and local forces information on ISIL’s tactics and how the group handles foreign fighters. He said it also provides information on command and control and how ISIL manages its resources.
Votel called ISIL “a connected enemy.” What the group does in Iraq and Syria has influences outside the region, he explained. “They are able to influence or perhaps direct things outside of there,” he said. “The things we are attacking in Manbij will have an effect.”
ISIL also is adaptive and Votel said he expects ISIL will continue to adapt. The coalition must be prepared for this, he said.
Engel asked Votel about Turkey in the wake of the recent coup attempt there. While Turkey is not in the U.S. Central Command area -- its part of U.S. European Command -- the country has a long border with Syria and Iraq, and host forces fighting ISIL.
Concerns About Turkey
Votel described Turkey as an important and vital partner of the United States.
“It’s beyond just being a place where we can park our assets and launch them into Syria or Iraq,” Votel said of Turkey.
Turkey, he said, has “been integrated into the things we are doing … they are the beneficiary of the information that we are deriving from the Islamic State and removing foreign fighters.”
Votel said Turkey also has “responded to information that we have provided to them to do things along their border.”