Baghdad – The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff arrived here this week on one of his periodic visits to assess the health of the campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford brought Jared Kushner, the senior advisor to President Donald J. Trump, and Tom Bossert, the president’s homeland security advisor, with him for meetings with Iraqi, American and coalition officials.
“It is the first trip to Iraq for Mr. Kushner and Mr. Bossert,” said Navy Capt. Greg Hicks, the special assistant to the chairman for public affairs. “As well as receiving briefings and updates, Mr. Kushner is traveling on behalf of the president to express the president’s support and commitment to the government of Iraq and US personnel currently engaged in the campaign.”
During an interview with reporters traveling with him, Dunford said he invited both men on the trip to give them a chance “to see our folks in the field, our advisors, our guys helping out with the counter-IED fight, our guys that provide the combined arms and our special operations forces so they can see them in action and have an appreciation for what they are doing,” the general said, using the acronym the military applies to enemy improvised explosive devices.
Dunford said he believes that those who form strategy should have a good situational awareness of what is happening tactically and hearing from US forces, firsthand and unfiltered. “So I think the more appreciation anyone can have — to include me — for what’s happening on the ground, the more informed you are to start talking the strategic issues,” he added.
The chairman said he and the presidential advisors are going to meet with Army Lt. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, the commander of Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve, to discuss operations after Iraqi forces have liberated Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, and the status of Iraqi forces as they take Mosul from ISIS and move forward. They will examine what the Iraqis need for equipment and training as they confront ISIS in other parts of the nation, the chairman told reporters.
“It is not our judgment that the Iraqis will be self-sustaining and self-sufficient in the wake of Mosul,” Dunford said. “More important, it is not Prime Minister [Haidar] Abadi’s assessment, [either]. He believes he will need continued US support in Iraq post-Mosul.”
The enemy is still in Tal Afar to the west of Mosul, as well as in Kirkuk and in the Euphrates River valley near Qaim. These are the three major areas of concern once Mosul is liberated, the chairman said.
Mosul is important, Dunford said, but it is not the end of the campaign against the terror group. ISIS still continues to launch terror attacks in Baghdad and in other cities, he noted, and still controls territory in the country.
Another consideration is maintaining focus on what has been accomplished so far and consolidating those gains, Dunford said. “We need to be very concerned about staying focused on the stabilization efforts in Mosul so the success the Iraqis have had in the past couple of months is solidified,” he added.
Raqqa, the so-called capital of the ISIS caliphate in Syria, is under attack, and plans continue to take the terrorist stronghold. Developing that plan will include a plan for stabilization and for law enforcement activity, the chairman told reporters. The real issue, he said, is how Secretary of State Rex Tillerson leverages the facts on the ground in Syria to achieve US political objectives. Tillerson was meeting with officials in Ankara, Turkey.
The whole US national security apparatus is looking at ways to refine the campaign against ISIS and other terror groups, the chairman said. “I do think whether we move forward with a refinement in the current strategy or we move to a different strategy is going to be informed by our assessment of the political conditions in Iraq, the capabilities of Iraqi security forces and the threat,” he added.
American officials also will assess the relationship among the Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite groups in Iraq. “Understanding those things is not only helpful,” Dunford explained, but critical to making the decision about where we are going in Iraq.”
Another important factor, he said, is the role of the Shiite militia and the ability to make sure any security forces in Iraq are accountable to the Iraqi government. “In the wake of operations in Mosul, clearly, the Sunnis that live in the region are going to want to ensure the issues are addressed properly, and I don’t know if they want to be liberated from ISIS only to then, by their perception, … be oppressed by Shia militia that are influenced by Iran,” Dunford said.
In Iraq, all of the major groups are cooperating and focused on defeating ISIS, the chairman told reporters. Keeping that sense of mission once ISIS is defeated in Mosul is key to progress in the country, he said.
More Work Remains
“I suggest there is still a lot of work to be done in Mosul for months to come,” Dunford said, noting that the prime minister estimates the country will need at least $2 billion to reconstruct and deliver essential services to the city.
The fight in Mosul has been tough, but Iraqi security forces have made gains. “What we’re seeing is a house-by-house, block-by-block, difficult fight,” the general said.” The Iraqis have increasingly needed help in dealing with IED threat, he added, and they have improved their capability against that threat over the past couple of months, as well as in countering the unmanned aerial system threat, which he said is a growing area of concern.
ISIS has placed IEDs in houses and blocks of buildings, the general said, and the bombs are still killing people, even as ISIS fighters flee.
“We expected a tough fight, and it is. The Iraqi security forces have taken a large number of casualties,” Dunford said. “The size of the city, the terrain, the IED threat, the time ISIS had to prepare defensive positions — all that characterized the nature of the fight inside Mosul.”