Citing the retaking of Ramadi by Iraqi forces as a “turning point” in the campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq, the top U.S. general in charge of operations there said that the Pentagon has reached the “end of the beginning” in the campaign to drive the extremist group out of the country.
“The enemy suffered devastating losses [in Ramadi] and the Iraqi security forces have proven themselves capable of defeating Daesh even when the enemy has all the advantages of a prepared defense in an urban area,” Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland told reporters Monday, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.
MacFarland, the commanding general for the U.S.-led anti-Islamic State mission, added that the defeat of the Islamic State in Iraq is “a matter of time” and that the formula of supporting Iraqi forces during offensive operations will eventually lead to the group’s defeat. More than 17,000 Iraqis and partner forces have been trained by the current U.S.-led coalition, he said
MacFarland, however, voiced some concern that the group could always resort to insurgent tactics—using terrorist tactics to remain a threat within the country long after they had been militarily defeated.
Though he was reluctant to give a timeline for the retaking of the Iraqi city of Mosul, one of Islamic State’s largest strongholds in both Iraq and Syria and likely the next big operation in the anti-Islamic State fight, MacFarland noted that his staff is looking at a number of additional capabilties that could be added for the upcoming battle. Kurdish and Iraqi officials, however, have said that battle for Mosul could happen by the end of the year. When asked about the upcoming campaign, MacFarland did not rule out U.S. troops in direct combat, saying that he will his submit proposals and President Obama will ultimately decide.
One possibility for aiding the Iraqis even more would be to use Apache helicopter gunships in support of operations in and around Mosul, said MacFarland. While the air campaign against the Islamic State has been extensive–with more than 10,000 strikes in Iraq and Syria–the use of Apaches in support of local ground troops would make close air support more effective since the gunships fly much lower and closer to the fight on the ground. Another possible use of U.S. forces in the battle for Mosul–while not directly alluded to by MacFarland–would be to provide U.S. troops who can call in airstrikes and coordinate close air support missions.
Lawmakers like Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) are especially eager to deploy these troops, also known as JTACs (short for Joint Terminal Attack Controllers), on the frontlines of the battle against the Islamic State. Currently, U.S. air support is requested by local forces on the ground, such as the Kurdish Peshmerga or Iraqi Security Forces, and then sourced back to U.S.-run command centers in Baghdad and Erbil. While it usually takes a short amount of time for coalition air support to arrive on scene and drop ordnance, the process could become more complicated during a major offensive of the likes needed to retake Mosul. In theory, JTACs would be able to streamline the process and help with better coordination between Iraqi, Kurdish and U.S. forces during the battle.
“I really don’t want to get into specifics in the terms of whether or not something is on or off the table,” MacFarland said. “All of us in uniform are preparing various options.”