IRBIL, Iraq —
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.
Not Unmindful of Challenges
“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 operations.”
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 Shia.”
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 the city.
“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)