The U.S. military is developing proposals for augmenting the American role in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq, senior Pentagon officials said on Monday, as plans take shape for a battle to reclaim the city of Mosul.
Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter, speaking to reporters at the Pentagon, said he expected the U.S. military to provide expanded assistance to Iraqi forces when they launch a campaign for the northern city, which has been under Islamic State militants for a year and a half. It would be an expansion, he said, of the assistance U.S. forces provided Iraqi troops when the local troops pushed militants out of Ramadi, another Iraqi city, in December.
“We’re talking about more of the things that we did in Ramadi, but we are talking about additional things of the kind that we’ve offered previously,” Carter said. “That includes, in addition to directly enabling Iraqi forces, some things like logistics and bridging. … So we fully expect to be doing more and differing in both scale and the kinds of things that we’re doing.”
Appearing at the same news conference, Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that Iraqi leaders had already provided their plan for attacking Mosul to Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland, the top U.S. commander for Iraq and Syria. Dunford said that MacFarland was working with U.S. Central Command, which has responsibility for the Middle East, to develop recommendations for steps the U.S. military military could take to make that offensive more effective.
Dunford said he would provide civilian leaders recommendations for those steps to in the “near future.”
Neither official provided details about what kind of additional actions they might recommend to President Obama for approval. Among those likely to be included, however, would be allowing U.S. troops to accompany Iraqi forces closer to the front lines and permitting the use of Apache helicopters to support ground troops.
Defeating the Islamic State in Mosul, one of Iraq’s largest cities, in the next year would represent a major blow to the group’s grip on Iraq and Syria, and would provide a needed win for Obama’s record against militant threats overseas.
While efforts to isolate Mosul have been underway for months, both Carter and Dunford declined to speculate when an assault on the city might begin in earnest. There are already contradictory estimates for when that could take place.
Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart, head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told Congress recently that he didn’t anticipate the city being retaken in the next year. But Iraqi military leaders have announced a much shorter timeline and have already starting moving troops to a staging base in the town of Makhmour, southeast of Mosul.
Boosting Iraqi forces’ chances in Mosul is an important component of the U.S. and allied campaign in Iraq and Syria. In recent months, U.S. backed forces in Iraq and Syria have made some headway against the group. But the slow rate of progress reveals the limitations of Iraqi and Syrian units fighting the Islamic State despite outside help. The U.S.-led effort has stumbled in particular in Syria, where Russia’s entry into the war has strengthened President Bashar al-Assad. U.S. officials are now hoping that a fraying cease-fire, which excludes the Islamic State and other hard-line militants, can hold together.
Carter and Dunford sought to highlight the Pentagon’s growing efforts to conduct cyber attacks against the Islamic State. U.S. officials hope the attacks will make it more difficult for militant leaders in Syria to communicate electronically.
“We’re trying to both physically and virtually isolate ISIL, limit their ability to conduct command and control, limit their ability to communicate with each other, limit their ability to conduct operations locally and tactically,” Dunford said.