WASHINGTON — The Iraqi security forces’ liberation of Ramadi from Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant control marked the turning point in Operation Inherent Resolve’s fight against ISIL, OIR Commander Army Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland told reporters today.
In his final Pentagon press briefing via Skype from Baghdad, MacFarland shared his counter-ISIL campaign observations from the past 11 months while he was commander. Army Lt. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, commander of 18th Airborne Corps, soon takes the OIR reins.
MacFarland said the campaign to defeat ISIL was in a stalemate a year ago and some wondered if the U.S.-led coalition should take a more direct role than training, equipping, advising and assisting indigenous forces. “Others questioned whether the Kurds would cooperate with Arab forces to fight [ISIL] beyond their own traditional region,” he said.
Deeds Versus Words
And since then, the questions were answered by deeds rather than words, McFarland said, adding, “In some ways, the progress against [ISIL] in Iraq and Syria has been remarkable. We modified the type and level of support we provided over the course of the past year, but we have not fundamentally altered the paradigm of train and equip, advise and assist.”
That approach is paying off as ISIL is in retreat on all fronts, he said, noting, “The ISF proved that they can conduct complex and decisive operations.”
Paraphrasing Winston Churchill, McFarland said, “The liberation of Ramadi was the end of the beginning of the campaign against [ISIL]. The beginning of the end will be the liberation of Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city. Once it is recaptured, the enemy in Iraq will be reduced to scattered pockets of resistance and that is now our focus.”
And it was the recapture of Ramadi by the ISF that taught important lessons about “how to train and equip the ISF for urban combat, which will pay dividends as we prepare for the battle of Mosul,” the general said. “We've shifted away from counterinsurgency toward combined arms maneuver training, teaching the Iraqis how to integrate infantry, armor, artillery, engineers, aviation and other combat multipliers to achieve an overwhelming advantage at the right place and time on the battlefield.”
MacFarland outlined statistics. He said, individually, the coalition has trained more than 13,500 Iraqi security forces including more than 4,000 Iraqi soldiers, 1,500 counterterrorism service soldiers, 6,000 Peshmerga, nearly 1,000 federal police and 300 border guards.
The ISF has subsequently liberated almost a quarter of a million civilians in Iraq, he said, noting that stepped-up training was added to police training and recruiting travel forces, which added 5,000 trained local police and more than 20,000 tribal fighters enrolled.
“These men will be key to holding the gains and we've already achieved in protecting these newly liberated Iraqis, soon to be joined by over a million additional citizens of Mosul,” MacFarland said. “While the forces on the Mara line have indeed held against [ISIL] advances, they've even made some progress south of the Turkish border.
In Syria, the general said, the Syrian Democratic Forces have made significant progress by pushing ISIL out of the numerous towns such as Shaddadi, Hasakah and Tishreen. “And soon [the SDF] will finish the fight in the important city of Manbij,” he said.
Retaking Manbij will set the stage for the eventual attack to seize Raqqah, McFarland said, adding retaking ISIL-controlled Raqqah will “mark the beginning of the end for [ISIL] in Syria.”
“During these operations, coalition aircraft have conducted about 50,000 sorties against [ISIL] in the past year,” he said. “During those sorties we've dropped more than 30,000 munitions on the enemy with approximately two-thirds of those in Iraq and about one-third in Syria. Our artillery has conducted more than 700 fire missions.”
MacFarland estimated that in the past 11 months, 25,000 enemy fighters have been killed, and when added to the 20,000 estimated killed prior to his arrival. That's 45,000 enemies taken off the battlefield.
“There's no question that our strikes have enabled the liberation of more than 25,000 total square kilometers from [ISIL],” he said. “That's nearly half of what the enemy once controlled in Iraq and 20 percent of what they once controlled in Syria.”
In Syria, the U.S.-led coalition has also conducted “more than 200 strikes against oil and natural gas activities of the enemy, destroying more than 640 of their tanker trucks, but more importantly, a number of critical facilities such as gas oil separation plan critical nodes, which reduce their oil revenue stream by perhaps 50 percent,” MacFarland said, noting vigorous attacks on enemy leadership, command and control and weapons manufacturing capability.
“Military success in Iraq and Syria will not necessarily mean the end of [ISIL],” McFarland said. “We can expect the enemy to adapt, to morph into a true insurgent force and terrorist organization capable of horrific attacks like the one here on July 3 in Baghdad and those others we've seen around the world.”