Defeating ISIS: Interviews with the US-led coalition by Seth Frantzman

By SETH J. FRANTZMAN

Over the last two years I have written about the war against Islamic State. This has involved numerous visits to northern Iraq to cover the battle of Mosul, and frontlines in Bashiqa, Kirkuk, Sinjar, Tel Skuf, Khazir, Gwar, Nawaran, Mosul Dam and other places. It has been a privilege to meet those on the frontline who stood against ISIS. Here are some of the articles with interviews with members of the US-led coalition, focusing on their role in defeating ISIS.

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Kurds at the KTCC training, Bnaslawa, July 2016 (Seth J. Frantzman)

Training Kurdish peshmerga July 27, 2016 The National Interest

Under the umbrella of the Kurdistan Training Coordination Center of the Combined Joint Task Force–Operation Inherent Resolve, seven partner nations are providing what they call “capacity building” for the Kurds. This includes Italy, the Netherlands, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Norway and the UK. Among the training is the work to detect and demine explosive devices left behind by ISIS. For the full article see here

The US coalition and the start of Mosul offensive, October 24, 2016 The Jerusalem Post

In a conversation with The Jerusalem Post, coalition spokesman Col. John Dorrian said that the Iraqi Army was continuing to advance on Mosul, a key goal of the coalition’s war against the extremists and the last major Iraqi city held by ISIS. “They have retaken many villages, as they get closer we expect fighting to get tougher,” he said. The Mosul offensive began on October 17. The first few days seemed to go quickly as ISIS showed only light resistance. Hundreds of square kilometers were liberated and villages fell one by one on the front lines in the Khazir and Gwer areas south and west of Mosul. However, “the enemy gets an understanding and feel for what the Iraqis are doing and we see that on the battlefield,” explained Dorrian. For full article see here

The Mosul offensive March 25, 2017 The Jerusalem Post

“We are seeing the last throes of Daesh [Islamic State]. Many of their leaders have left the area and abandoned their own soldiers. The hard core of foreign fighters [remains] and one by one we are going in and annihilating them in West Mosul,” says US Brig.-Gen William A. Turner. Turner is the deputy commanding general for Combined Joint Forces Land Component Command in Iraq, the US-led coalition to defeat ISIS. For the full article see here

The US advisors and the new Iraqi army The Jerusalem Post April 5, 2017

Speaking with a commander of a combat team of the 82nd Airborne Division, which is advising and assisting the Iraqi forces – served in Iraq during the surge of 2005-2006, when America was fighting the Iraqi insurgency. He says the contrast today is extraordinary. Ten years ago the Iraqi Army was more limited than today. “The Federal Police are extremely professional and disciplined and capable, and that’s one of the biggest differences from 10 years ago,” he declares. The US-led coalition that is helping to defeat ISIS stresses that the Iraqis are fully in charge of the operation and they are the ones leading it.The For full article see here

Mosul and a new US strategy? April 14, 2017 The Jerusalem Post

Micah Thompson, a platoon leader, says “we have the capability to address all targets; the point of the Paladin is a mobile artillery system. The fight that we bring is the precision munition capability. We are able to program and set those fuses and provide those rounds downrange in rapid time in order to accomplish [our task].” He’s one of the recent generation of US Army soldiers serving in Iraq, and he’s enthusiastic about providing fire support to the Iraqi security personnel who are slowly clearing Mosul of Islamic State fighters. For full article see here

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Lt. Col. John Hawbaker, 82nd Airborne (Seth J. Frantzman)

Mosul offensive US advise and assist in Hamam al-Alil April 7, 2017 National Review

From the article: Lieutenant Colonel John Hawbaker, a local U.S. commander from the 73rd Cavalry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division, says that the Iraqi army’s various units fighting in Mosul are capable and experienced. Sitting next to the tarmac of a makeshift helipad ten kilometers south of Mosul, the commander liaisons with the Emergency Response Brigade and the federal police, two Iraqi units that have played a key role in the battle for Mosul. For full article see here

Raqqa offensive June 28, 2017 The Jerusalem Post

The US is keeping the focus on defeating ISIS in Syria despite complexities relating to Russia, Syria and “de-confliction,” according to Col. Ryan Dillon, spokesman for the CJTF:OIR. The piece notes: Three weeks ago the Syrian Democratic Forces, a coalition of groups mostly led by Kurdish fighters, began its assault on Raqqa. Every day it is taking parts of the city. According to US Army Col. Ryan Dillon, spokesman for Combined Joint Task Force, Operation Inherent Resolve, the SDF took 2 square kilometers from the extremists on Monday. Dillon, who was a company commander during the war in northern Iraq in 2003, says the SDF has been moving quickly, “clearing neighborhood after neighborhood at incredible pace and this last week hit stiff resistance.” For full story see here

Al-Tanf garrison, Syria July 10, 2017 Interview with Col. Ryan Dillon about Tanf The Jerusalem Post

Col. Ryan Dillon, a spokesman for the CJTF:OIR discussed the Tanf garrison and the anti-ISIS forces being trained in Syria. “We are training them [Maghawir al-Thawra and Shohada al-Quartayn] on things like establishing checkpoints, patrols, ambush, medical training, some of these types of things,” Dillon said. “There have been skirmishes in that area and some battles with ISIS that have been down in that area.” While the first priority is to train these groups, “purpose number two is that these forces are from these areas,” he said. “ISIS exists in the middle Euphrates River Valley, [and these trained forces] would be intended to be partner forces if and when we take on ISIS in the Euphrates River Valley.”For a full transcript see here

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Brig Gen. Andrew A. Croft is the deputy commanding general of the US-led coalition against ISIS in Iraq. (Courtesy US Air Force)

The air war, August 12, 2017, The Jerusalem Post

In an interview withUS Air Force Brig.-Gen. Andrew A. Croft, deputy commander for the Air, Combined Joint Forces Land Component Command of Operation Inherent Resolve  “The challenge we faced is we were operating in a city of 1.8 million the size of Philadelphia and the enemy was embedded in the civilian population, and we did everything we could do to protect civilians,” recalls US Air Force Brig.-Gen. Andrew A. Croft. In short, “I am the guy who helped run and coordinate the air campaign in Mosul as it came down to the final days,” he says in a phone interview from Iraq. The general, who holds an MBA from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, was appointed to his current position in April 2017 and will serve through next May. He describes it as the most precise air war in history and discusses “de-confliction” with the Hashd al-Shaabi. For full article see here

De-conflicting in Deir ez-Zor August 19, 2017, The Jerusalem Post

The coalition says it does not have a policy for Deir ez-Zor and Euphrates valley. “We have no fight with anyone but Da’esh and will not support any operation that are not against Da’esh,” the coalition public affairs office wrote in an email. They further note that ISIS is a “truly evil enemy of the people of Syria, the region and the world.” Read the full article here

Tal Afar operation August 27th, 2017 The Jerusalem Post

Iraqi army crushes ISIS in Tal Afar, an interview with Lt. Col. Downing, advisor to the 15th Iraqi army division as well as with Majd Helobi, a local fixer and photographer. Lt. Col Downing says: “They [the Iraqi security forces] did phenomenal, they outmaneuvered the enemy and took a number [of places] without firing a shot. Impressive to see how far they have come… with their security forces and army working together,” he asserts. For the full article see here

US opposes Hezbollah-ISIS transfer agreement

“Russian and pro-regime counter-ISIS words ring hollow when they allow known terrorists to transit territory under their control,” the press desk of the Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve wrote in response to an inquiry from The Jerusalem Post. “ISIS is a global threat; relocating terrorists from one place to another for someone else to deal with, is not a lasting solution.” Full article

Advise and assist: A US officer looks back at three tours and fourteen years of Iraq’s security forces September 15, 2017, The Jerusalem Post

In an interview with Lt. Col. James Downing we discussed his three tours in Iraq, in 2004, 2007 and 2017. He saw first hand how the insurgency developed, how the ‘Surge’ defeated it and how it came back as ISIS.“I’m not sure what drove that but by the time I came back in 2006 for the Surge, there was al-Qaida in Iraq and if they said they wanted 10 car bombs to go off in Baghdad, [it happened,” he says. Al-Qaida and other groups came to occupy Sunni Arab areas of Iraq, which the US referred to as “ungoverned spaces.” Basically these were areas that, due to the weakness of the new Iraqi government, fell to these local forces. That changed in 2007 when the US upped its troop numbers from around 130,000 to 150,000 during the Surge to defeat the insurgency. “I switched to be a company commander and then from November 2006 to February 2008 I operated all over Iraq, mainly targeting extremist organizations such as al-Qaida and the Islamic State of Iraq,” says Downing. Al-Qaida leader abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed in June 2006 when F-16s dropped two 500-pound bombs on his safe house near Baqubah. See the full article here

Interview with Col. Charles D. Costanza, strike cell against ISIS, The Jerusalem Post

October 2, 2017: The US-led coalition is advising and assisting the Iraqis in their advance, letting the Iraqis lead the way. One of the US officers playing a key role in advising the Hawija offensive is Col. Charles D. Costanza, who is on his fourth tour in Iraq. He arrived at the end of the offensive to retake Mosul from ISIS and advised the Iraqis during the operation to take Tal Afar as commanding officer for the Combined Joint Operations Center in Erbil. He also commands the target engagement authority and is the 1st armored division’s chief of staff. “They [the Iraqis] are executing simultaneous operations. The 9th armored division, federal police and counter-terrorism forces are in Hawija,” he says, emphasizing that other Iraqi units are launching an offensive in Anbar province. Full article 

How Iraq’s forces liberated Hawija, The Jerusalem Post

October 5, 2017 A look at the final two weeks of the operation, full article

Preventing an ISIS resurgence, The Jerusalem Post

In a November 20, 2017 interview with Col. Ryan Dillon he discussed the battle against ISIS and what comes next. “I was in Mosul with the commander of Nineveh Operations Center,” he recalled. Dillon has been the spokesman for the Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve since May. Iraqi security forces from a variety of units were deployed in the liberated areas of Mosul. Among them were the Tribal Mobilization Forces (TMF), mostly Sunni Arabs who answered the call to fight ISIS. “These folks are from these [liberated] areas,” Dillon said of those called “Sons of the City” by a local commander. “They know who belongs and who doesn’t belong and play a role in identifying who doesn’t belong.”  With 99% of the area liberated, by November 11, that was accomplished through more than 28,000 air strikes, 14,000 of which were in Iraq. While Dillon said the coalition doesn’t provide estimates on the numbers killed, in July, an officer from US Special Operations Command told an audience in Aspen that around 60,000 to 70,000 ISIS fighters had been taken down. To accomplish this, 74 partner-nations have joined the coalition, including 23 that provided troops. Most recently, on November 15, a Danish contingent of 30 troops arrived. Since the first coalition casualty in March 2015, a total of 19 coalition members have been killed fighting ISIS.

Coalition to continue to support SDF, The Jerusalem Post

November 26 query and response from the Coalition, full article here

Interview with Maj. Gen. Felix Gedney about “stabilization,” The Jerusalem Post

Dec 1, 2017: “We are approaching a military shift,” says Maj.-Gen. Felix Gedney, the deputy-commander for strategy and support of the US-led coalition. “We are coming to an end of the liberation of Iraq and Syria from ISIS, a big campaign milestone,” the commander told The Jerusalem Post. “The departure of these outstanding Marines is a sign of real progress in the region,” said Brig.-Gen. Jonathan Braga, according to a press release from the coalition. Still, Gedney said: “We are still fighting against Daesh [ISIS] and the last remnants that they hold.” Full article here 

US accuses Syria of letting ISIS move with impunity, The Jerusalem Post

Dec. 28, 2017 “They seem to be moving with impunity through regime-held territory, showing that the regime is clearly either unwilling or unable to defeat Daesh [ISIS] within their borders,” British Army Maj.-Gen. Felix Gedney, a deputy commander in the coalition, said on Wednesday, according to AFP. Full article

US continues to strike ISIS, The Jerusalem Post

Dec 30, 2017 In Iraq the coalition conducted six air strikes between December 22 and 28. Although one of them was in western Iraq near Al-Asad, the other five were near Hawija, Mosul and Jalula (Jalawla), which are areas that the coalition and Iraqi forces have taken over the last year. In Hawija, which was liberated from ISIS in September, three strikes targeted a fighting position, a cave and tunnel entrances. Full article

US will stay in eastern Syria, The Jerusalem Post

Dec 30, 2017 “What we will be doing is shifting from what I would call an offensive, shifting from an offensive terrain-seizing approach to a stabilizing… you’ll see more US diplomats on the ground,” Mattis told reporters, according to Reuters, adding that he expected there to be more American contractors there as well, as the fight against Islamic State nears its end and the focus turns toward rebuilding and ensuring the terrorists do not return. Full article

Coalition killed 150 ISIS fighters, The Jerusalem Post

January 28, 2018: An estimated 150 ISIS members killed in strikes, full article

Maj. Gen. Jarrard discusses stabilization in Syria and Iraq

In a two-part interview with Maj. Gen. James Jarrard, commander of Special Operations in Combined Joint Task Force, Operation Inherent Resolve, the commander discusses tensions with Turkey in Manbij, the need to clear IEDs and how to stabilize eastern Syria. He also discussed the job Iraq was doing in terms of preparing for the after ISIS era.
“The ISF understands that even though we liberated terrain there is a lot of fighting left,” says the general. ISIS and al-Qaida before it have been defeated and then risen from the ashes. The coalition wants to ensure that doesn’t happen. “The ISF continues to build their capabilities every week and they conduct exercises and targeting cycles by themselves and the better they get the better they can maintain pressure.”

There is also a lot of reconstruction to be done and clearing thousands of IEDs. Jarrard said that in Raqqa, Manbij, and Tabqa some experts have estimated it could take up to 10 years to clear all the mines left behind.

“That is the biggest inhibitor to all the other stabilization efforts because of the dangers of working in areas not cleared of IEDs,” he explained. It’s a bit of a catch-22 because the US wants to help the local people have security to get their agriculture developed and start earning a living while the coalition wants the US State Department donors to set down foundations under a program called START Forward.

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