ABOARD A MILITARY AIRCRAFT (October 20, 2015) — The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff today detailed the campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant following a visit to Iraq.
Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr. told reporters traveling with him that while he will not project a timeline, operations against the terror group continue to make progress.
The general said the trip allowed him to focus on the campaign and clarified some of his thinking on its main elements. “But one thing I am going to steer clear of is talking about timelines,” he added. “I will just say right up front there is no timeline.”
The fight against ISIL has been and will be tough, Dunford said, noting that he enemy is adaptable and flexible. A year ago, ISIL solidified its hold in Syria and swept into Iraq, he said. He last visited the area in September, before becoming chairman, and at that time, he said, operations in Syria and Iraq were stalemated. Now, there is progress, he added.
“We want to create pressure against ISIL across Iraq and Syria,” he said.
Kurdish forces in Syria are operating against ISIL lines of communication that extend from the group’s de facto capital of Raqqa to Mosul in Iraq and on to Irbil, he said. These operations will “make life difficult for ISIL,” the general said, and the Kurds have taken back “a not insignificant amount of ground from ISIL.”
Iraqi government operations to take the Beiji oil refinery from ISIL have been successful, and now the government forces are demonstrating they can work together to secure the critical resource, the chairman said.
The coalition against ISIL inside Iraq is growing. “The number of Sunni that have been trained and armed is about 6,000 in Anbar province, and they want to grow to about 8,500,” Dunford said. On the police side of the ledger, the government was looking for 16,000 Sunni to volunteer, and they are now at around 11,000 to 12,000.
A Stabilizing Force
“The important thing about this is, the police are the stabilization force for Ramadi,” the general said. “That was encouraging to me, because clearing Ramadi is one thing, … but we all know from experience that you have to have a plan for stabilization afterward.”
Last year, ISIL threatened Baghdad. Now the Iraqi capital is secure. “Defending Baghdad is clearly the most important mission in Iraq, and that is a main effort,” Dunford said.
Last year, equipment and supplies were just starting to flow to the anti-ISIL coalition. Now, anti-ISIL forces are receiving what they need to defeat the group.
“Operations in Beiji were absolutely encouraging, because just a week ago, we heard [the Iraqi security forces] were going to start doing things, and they have had some pretty good success,” the general said.
“They are now holding ground and securing the area,” he continued, “so that was, I thought, fairly positive. My perspective was always that we would support the Iraqis where we could have operational or strategic consequences.”
Part of that is seeing success and reinforcing it, the general said.
So, for example, if the Iraqis have a realistic plan for clearing Ramadi and a realistic plan for securing the city once ISIL is pushed out, then the United States will look at what unique capabilities it can bring to help the Iraqis, the chairman said.
Command and Control
But not all is brightness and light, he acknowledged, noting that Iraqi leaders must concentrate of command and control. The government needs to appoint a military leader with command for the overall military effort in the country – including the Iraqi security forces, the Kurdish Peshmerga forces, the tribes and the police, and Iraqi leaders will sit down tomorrow to discuss appointing just such a person, Dunford said.
Having one person to talk to who can speak with authority about the campaign will make it easier for the coalition to provide support to all, he said.
Common Operational Picture
The command and control solution is to have a “common operational picture of Iraq in one commander, who on behalf of the Iraqis can talk to the coalition about ‘Where do we go?’” the general said. “Success in this business is about being able to anticipate, and you can only anticipate if you really have a common understanding, common objectives, common sense of time and space.”
More still needs to be done with the Sunni tribes, Dunford said. “It’s a physical manifestation of the government’s promise to be inclusive,” he told reporters.
Outside factors also complicate the campaign, the chairman said. The conflict in Yemen complicates what is happening in Iraq and Syria, he explained, and Iran’s funding of proxies and surrogates complicates and already complicated picture. Russia’s involvement has added yet another layer of complexity, he said. “And you have to talk about the Shiia/Sunni dynamic in the region, as well,” he added.