What’s different about the end of this Iraq war from the end of the last one? Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland, who commands U.S. troops there now and also fought to liberate Ramadi six years ago, says he will leave the country this month confident that Iraqi and Kurdish Peshmerga troops have proven they can fight and defeat the Islamic State, or ISIS.
What comes after the fight, however, is up to Iraqi politics and even this veteran of Iraq would not venture to guess how well that will turn out.
“I'm not going to speak to the political stuff because I'm not wearing a tie,” MacFarland said Wednesday in Baghdad, giving likely his last battle assessment via video link to reporters at the Pentagon. “That's not my place to talk about. But what I'll say is, on the military side, the Iraqi security forces and the Peshmerga have proven that they can fight and defeat the enemy with really a fairly light touch from us. We’re only doing ‘advise and assist’ at a remove — and in specific locations. In the vast majority of the battlespace, they’re on their own, for the most part.”
“So, can they do this? Sure, they can do this. And it'll be up to them to not allow their grievances with one another to prevent them from holding onto the gains that they've hard won.”
MacFarland may be downplaying the “light touch” of American support propping up Iraqi and other forces. Progress against ISIS has come on the back of massive amounts of U.S. intelligence work and airpower since August 2014. In the past year alone, the anti-ISIS coalition has conducted 50,000 sorties and dropped 30,000 munitions, he said, while local ground forces from special operators to militias regrouped, retrained, and with American help reclaimed their lands.
Those deep-rooted, largely ethnic and religious grievances could be on full display within months if U.S.-backed Iraqi forces are able to retake and hold Mosul as expected. MacFarland said Iraqi regular troops, counterterrorism forces, and police require still more training — both for the assault and to maintain security afterwards — while Americans set up additional logistics preparations at the nearby Qayyarah airfield. The commander would not specify when he expects the Mosul assault to begin, but said it was months, not weeks, away. That echoes recent pronouncements by President Barack Obama, Defense Secretary Ash Carter, and U.S. Central Command’s Gen. Joseph Votel.
“We’re going to try to get Mosul back as fast as we can,” he said. “It’s one million people living under an oppression rule under terrible conditions and we’re going to push to get it back as fast as possible. The Iraqi security forces around Qayyarah,” where U.S. forces are building up a logistics and fire support base, “are in a position now to begin that process and we'll try to hurry that along as fast as we possibly can but putting an exact time on it, I'd rather not.”
“I would say that anybody who thinks they know how fast or slow this could go, should come and work for me, because I'd love to know, too.”
In MacFarland’s assessment, various metrics show that the U.S.-led coalition is winning the fight against ISIS. The group had lost more than half its ground geography, including Ramadi and Fallujah, and while it continues to replenish its fighters (MacFarland estimated ISIS at anywhere from 15,000 to 30,000 strong), new recruits are far less capable and include inexperienced administrative personnel and locals forced to man checkpoints.
“We don’t see them operating nearly as effectively as they have in the past, which makes them even easier targets for us,” MacFarland said. “And although it's not a measure of success and it’s difficult to confirm, we estimate that over the past 11 months we’ve killed about 25,000 enemy fighters. When you add that to the 20,000 estimated killed prior to our arrival, that's 45,000 enemies taken off the battlefield.”
Further north, Syrian Democratic Forces have met MacFarland’s expectations. They have encircled the city of Manbij, reducing ISIS fighters to a small pocket of resistance. The SDF already has killed more than 2,000 ISIS fighters there, he said.
“It won't be months; it will be weeks maybe, maybe less than that — a week, two weeks” before the city is completely liberated, MacFarland said. “It's hard to say; the enemy always gets a vote. They can fight to the last man, or they could do as they did it in Fallujah and try to run for it in a big ol’ convoy. And I think that some of them might may decide the former, some may decide to do the latter, and that will determine the pace of the clearance of the rest of the city.”
And who will win the subsequent race for Raqqa against Russian and Syrian forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad? “I always bet on the United States, so I’ll put my money on the nose of Uncle Sam.”
Few observers seem to doubt U.S. forces can push ISIS out of those cities, but already Iraq watchers worry whether political leaders in Baghdad and Washington are prepared to protect those gains so that in this war, at least, the blood shed by Americans and locals will not be squandered.
MacFarland demurred to Baghdad, when asked if Shiite militias would be included in the coalition’s push to reclaim Mosul.
“Yeah, well, here’s the thing. The government of Iraq is in charge of this war. We’re here to support them. So, the campaign is really their decision. I would say that if you’re going to bring Shia militia into a predominantly Sunni-Kurdish-Turkomen-Christian-Yazidi type of an area, that some political groundwork would need to be done to ensure that their presence is acceptable to the citizens that they’re there to assist and liberate.”
MacFarland, commander of III Corps out of Fort Hood, Texas, is expected to leave within the next two weeks and hand over command of Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, to incoming Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, commanding general of the XVIII Airborne Corps, which will take over the headquarters operations of U.S. troops in Iraq. Townsend is an Army Ranger, veteran of Mosul in the previous Iraq war, the Afghanistan War, as well as Haiti and Panama. He has served as executive officer to the CENTCOM commander, commanded the 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, New York. In Washington, he was director of the influential Pakistan/Afghanistan Coordination Cell, on the Joint Staff in the Pentagon.
It was MacFarland’s first Pentagon press conference in seven months.