|U.S. Department of Defense
|Presenter: Lieutenant General Sean MacFarland, commander, Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve and Captain Jeff Davis, Director, Defense Press Office||August 10, 2016|
Department of Defense Press Briefing by Lieutenant General Sean MacFarland, commander, Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve via teleconference from Baghdad, Iraq
CAPTAIN JEFF DAVIS: OK, good morning. General, I want to make sure you can hear us and we can hear you.
GEN. MACFARLAND: I can hear you.
CAPT DAVIS: OK. And Tom, if we can have just a tiny bit more volume out here.
Ladies and gentlemen, we’re joined this morning from Iraq by Army Lieutenant General Sean MacFarland.
General MacFarland is commander of Combined Joint Task Force Inherent Resolve, and he has been commander of the CJTF since October of last year.
General, we’ll turn it over to you for opening remarks, and then we’ll take questions.
LIEUTENANT GENERAL SEAN GEN. MACFARLAND: Well, thank, Jeff, and hello everybody.
And just a minor correction, Jeff, I actually took command at CJTF in September of last year. So, I want to get full credit for my tour over here, OK?
Anyway, I am the commander and will be for about another week and a half. As most of you know, the CJTF is the operational level headquarters that oversees the campaign against ISIL in Iraq and Syria.
It has been seven months since the last time I did a press conference like this. But I’ve gotten to see a lot of you as you come through Iraq with our senior leaders.
And since this is my last Pentagon press conference, I’d like to just make a few parting observations. And then I’ll be glad to take your questions.
So, 11 months ago on September 19, the third U.S. armored corps assumed the mission of leading Combined Joint Task Force OIR from the 3rd U.S. Army.
The year prior, 3rd Army had stood up the CJTF headquarters in response to Daesh advances from Syria into Iraq. To their great credit, they were able to stop the enemy onslaught and even rolled it back in some areas.
But Daesh still controlled the Euphrates River Valley from the Syrian-Turkish border almost to the edge of Baghdad, to include the recently fallen city of Ramadi. The enemy held all the major population centers in Ninawa province in the north, and along the Tigris River valley from Mosul down to the oil refineries down at Baiji.
Our Syrian opposition partners were hanging on along the Mara line by their fingertips in northwest Syria. The Kurds in both Iraq and Syria had ceased advancing. Many observers characterized the situation then as a stalemate.
You don’t hear the word “stalemate” anymore. That’s because over the past year with our partners, we were able to seize the initiative. We now talk about maintaining the momentum of the campaign in both Iraq and Syria. In other words, we spend more time thinking about what we will do to the enemy than we spend thinking about what the enemy might do to us.
But even success can beget problems and we’ve heard concern from quarters that the military campaign is moving too fast. Well, from my perspective, that is not a bad problem to have. Eleven months ago, there were questions about our strategy, the capacity and the will of our partners. When we took over the fight, we found the ISF, which had been trained primarily for counterinsurgency, unable to eject the enemy from Baiji. In Anbar, the Iraqis were making frustratingly slow progress toward the outskirts of Ramadi.
Some wondered whether we could defeat Daesh working by, with and through our partners or it we needed to take a more direct role. Still others questions whether the Kurds would cooperate with Arab forces to fight Daesh beyond their own traditional region.
Since then, all these questions have been answered, not by words, but by deeds. In some ways, the progress against Daesh in Iraq and Syria has been remarkable. Yes, we modified the type and level of support we provided over the course of the past year, but we have not fundamentally altered the paradigm of train and equip, advise and assist.
And our approach is paying off. The enemy is in retreat on all fronts. The ISF proved that they can conduct complex and decisive operations. To seize the operationally important airfield of Qayyarah West, for example, the Iraqi army conducted an attack by the largest Iraqi armored force since 1990, although this time the M1 tanks and the coalition were on their side. The ISF also conducted the first opposed bridging operation by any Arab army since the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, for which the Kurds provided important cooperation and support.
But the turning point in Operation Inherent Resolve in Iraq I think was the liberation of Ramadi, just as it was a turning point in 2006 during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Here, the Iraqi counterterrorism service and Iraqi army, with our support, won a hard-fought victory. In the process, they broke the back of enemy resistance in Anbar province by inflicting massive casualties, cutting off Fallujah, dealing a huge blow to enemy morale, and proving to themselves that they were better than Daesh.
To paraphrase Winston Churchill, the liberation of Ramadi was the end of the beginning of the campaign against Daesh. The beginning of the end will be the liberation of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. Once it is recaptured, the enemy in Iraq will be reduced to scattered pockets of resistance and that is now our focus.
Ramadi also taught us important lessons about how to train and equip the ISF for urban combat, which will pay dividends as we prepare for the battle of Mosul. We’ve shifted away from counterinsurgency towards combined arms maneuver training, teaching the Iraqis how to integrate infantry, armor, artillery, engineers, aviation and other combat multipliers to achieve an overwhelming advantage at the right place and time on the battlefield.
Individually, we’ve trained more than 13,500 members of the Iraqi security forces including over 4,000 Iraqi Army soldiers, 1,500 counter terrorism service solders, 6,000 Peshmerga, almost 1,000 Federal police and 300 border guards.
These Iraqi security forces have liberated almost a quarter of a million civilians in Iraq. We also stepped up our emphasis on police training and recruiting travel forces, adding 5,000 trained local police and over 20,000 tribal fighters enrolled.
These men will be key to holding the gains that we’ve already achieved in protecting these newly liberated Iraqis, soon to be joined by over a million additional citizens of Mosul.
Across the border, we have supported our various partnered forces in the North, the Northwest and Southeast Syria. While the forces on the Marea line have indeed held against Daesh advances, they’ve even made some progress south of the Turkish border.
The Syrian Democratic forces have made significant progress elsewhere. The SDF pushed the enemy out of the towns of (inaudible), Shaddadi, Hasakah and Tishreen and soon will finish the fight in the important city of Manbij, which will set the stage for the eventual attack to seize Raqqa and that will mark the beginning of the end for Daesh in Syria. During these operations, coalition aircraft have conducted about 50,000 sorties against Daesh in the past year.
During those sorties we’ve dropped more than 30,000 munitions on the enemy with approximately two-thirds of those in Iraq and about one-third in Syria. Our artillery has conducted more than 700 fire missions.
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 enemy taken off the battlefield.
I only tell you this number to provide a sense to the scale of our support and perhaps explain why enemy resistance is beginning to crumble. And whatever the true number of enemy casualties may be, there’s no question that our strikes have enabled the liberation of more than 25,000 total square kilometers from Daesh. That’s nearly half of what the enemy once controlled in Iraq and 20 percent of what they once controlled in Syria.
So let’s take a look at the map, here, I have on display down there.
And I just want a caveat and say this is my assessment. This is not necessarily the agreed assessment of the entire intelligence community. But the dark red areas indicate progress over the past 11 months.
You’ll note that we used a different color to denote progress by the Syrian regime and their Russian partners which we don’t include in our totals. The Russians, as you may know, showed up shortly after third corps arrived and have certainly caused us a number of challenges.
But we haven’t let them distract us from our objective in Syria. We’ve also conducted more than 200 strikes against oil and natural gas activities of the enemy, destroying more than 640 of their tanker trucks but more importantly a number of critical facilities such as gas oil separation plan critical nodes, which reduce their oil revenue stream by perhaps 50 percent.
We’ve also hid more than 25 bulk cash sites, destroying at least a half a billion dollars. And we vigorously attacked enemy leadership, command and control and weapons manufacturing capability.
Sadly, success has not come without cost. We lost three great Americans during our time here: Army Master Sergeant Josh Wheeler, Marine Corps Staff Sergeant Louis Cardin, and a Navy Petty Officer First Class Charles Keating.
But I also have to acknowledge the loss of our Iraqi security forces and other partner forces in Syria. They too have sacrificed. They’ve lost hundreds of killed and many more wounded as they’ve borne the brunt of this fight against our common enemy. And they too deserve to be honored and remembered.
As I wrap up, I’d like to register a note of caution. Military success in Iraq and Syria will not necessarily mean the end of Daesh. We can expect the enemy to adapt, to morph into a true insurgent force and terrorist organization capable of horrific attacks like the one here on July 3rd in Baghdad and those others we’ve seen around the world.
Fortunately, I’m about to be succeeded by just the right person to ensure we stay one step ahead of the enemy. As third corps completes its time as the CJTF headquarters, I’d like to welcome the 18th Airborne Corps and its commander, Lieutenant General Steve Townsend. While the 18th Airborne Corps is almost as good as the third armored corps, its commander is better.
As a brigade commander, my unit fought in and liberated Ramadi which gave me an invaluable perspective on that decisive battle. When Steve Townsend was here as a brigade commander, he fought Mosul. So he’s the perfect choice to lead the coalition as they support the most decisive fight on the campaign in Iraq. He will bring about the beginning of the end for Daesh in both Iraq and Syria.
So with that, I’ll be glad to take your questions.
CAPT DAVIS: Sure, we’ll start with Tom Bowman from National Public Radio.
QUESTION: General thanks for doing this.
You talk about the beginning of the end with Raqqa and Mosul. Could you give us your sense of when Mosul, the city itself, will be taken? Some people I talked with here in the Pentagon say it’s a 50 / 50 chance that Mosul will be retaken by year’s end. Would you agree with that estimate or do you have different figures?
GEN. MACFARLAND: Well, Tom, you probably know I’m always reluctant to give time estimates because you’re almost bound to be wrong about it. So I would just say this, we’re going to try to get Mosul back as fast as we can. 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 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.
CAPT DAVIS: Next to Tony Capaccio with Bloomberg.
QUESTION: Sir, last week the president was here, and among the things he said that were largely ignored by the press, was that we’re far from freeing Mosul and Raqqa.
He also said that ISIL’s inevitably going to be defeated. Can you translate the president’s remarks and when he says far from being freed? Was that based on a military assessment he got recently and are we talking months and months away?
And then the concept of inevitably being defeated. I think that’s again a timeline question. Can you give us any sense of what inevitably may mean in terms of years or months?
GEN. MACFARLAND: Well, I can tell you what inevitably means in the sense of probability.
And I agree with the president that I am 100 percent certain that Daesh will be eliminated as a governing entity in Iraq and Syria. As far as how far away it is, just like I told Tom, I’m reluctant to make estimates of how long it can take. We have helped the Iraqis get close to the city. They have additional forces that are in training that will also assist in the — upcoming operations.
And the enemy gets a vote, its action, reaction and counteraction once the battle is joined. And 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.
QUESTION: Now, when he says, “We are far from freeing Mosul and Raqqa,” was that based on input he received last week in the briefing in the Pentagon, and maybe input that you gave via VTC or something?
GEN. MACFARLAND: I would have to refer you back to the president and ask him, because I didn’t actually see that remark, and I don’t know the context it was given in.
So, not quite sure what his precise meaning was there.
CAPT DAVIS: Next to Courtney Kube with NBC News.
QUESTION: Hi, General. Just two quick things from your opening statement.
And I know this is asking you to look forward, pretty far forward, but you talked about the importance of holding the gains that are — that the military makes. What’s the estimate for how many Iraqis it will take to hold Mosul once it’s retaken?
And have any of those Iraqis already been trained, or is that a force that needs to be trained up?
GEN. MACFARLAND: Thanks. Actually, some are already in existence. We have plans to train quite a number of the additional forces for that mission.
And we are working with the government of Iraq and the governorate of Nineveh to refine the numbers for the whole force. It’s always a little bit of a work in progress.
What we estimated for Ramadi and Fallujah were a little bit different than what we actually required. So, we’ll try to make sure that we have enough on hand to follow in immediately after the city is cleared.
And that’s the real key is that you have enough forces to go in. And what will happen is, typically, if you don’t have enough of the so-called hold forces ready, then the clearing forces will stay a little bit longer until there are enough follow-on hold forces.
So, we’ll make sure that we don’t pull those clearing forces out too soon, and we’ll try to get as many hold forces in there as quickly as we can. But we want to make sure that they have the training and the equipment that they require to succeed.
QUESTION: But tens of thousands, or — can you give us any estimate for how many you think it will take?
GEN. MACFARLAND: Well, if you kind of go back to pre-2014 and you look at the size of the police force up in Mosul and Nineveh, that’s a pretty good starting point for the number of forces.
So, yeah, that’s in the thousands. And — but we’ll probably need a little bit more than that until we’ve ensured that the surrounding areas are completely secured as well.
QUESTION: And then, if I could just ask you one other thing? You mentioned in your opening statement that there are some people who the military campaigns are moving too fast.
You’ll have to forgive me, because I’ve never heard that argument made. Who is saying that, and are there any specific areas that they’re talking about this?
GEN. MACFARLAND: I’ll tell you, it tends to come from some of the humanitarian folks who are trying to make sure that they have all of the humanitarian assistance lined up for internally displaced personnel, IDPs, as we call them. They’re trying to make sure that there is no humanitarian crisis as a result of our successes.
CAPT DAVIS: Let’s go to Carla Babb with Voice of America.
QUESTION: Thank you, General, for doing this.
You mentioned that Russia had caused a number of challenges. I was hoping you could detail some of those recent challenges. And then also with the recent connections between Vladimir Putin and Erdogan, are you all concerned about Turkey’s commitment to the coalition in Syria? And if I may follow up with one last question, can you give us your assessment of the situation in Aleppo with regards to the coalition?
GEN. MACFARLAND: Yeah. Well, first of all, Turkey is a NATO ally. They provide us with all sorts of important support for this campaign. And I would anticipate that that will continue.
As far as the Russians go, I’ll give you an example of a challenge that they presented, and that was bombing a camp full of Arab resistance fighters that we were working with in southern Syria.
QUESTION: And then the situation in Aleppo?
GEN. MACFARLAND: Oh, I’m sorry. Well, it’s a little fluid right now. And the concern, of course, there is, as I mentioned to an earlier question, was the humanitarian situation. That fight is urban. It’s densely populated. People there are suffering. And to me in many ways, Aleppo is a model of how I don’t want to fight in Mosul.
So, you know, we’re watching that fight pretty closely. But there are a number of different parties to that battle over there in western Syria, and it’s pretty, as I said, fluid. We watch it day by day because the advantage shifts back and forth.
QUESTION: How do you want to fight in Mosul? Do you feel that it — do you feel the coalition should send forces that close to the Syrian regime, backed by Russians?
GEN. MACFARLAND: Well, what I meant by that is we don’t want to inflict that level of suffering on the people of Mosul. We want to conduct the campaign to liberate Mosul in a way that leaves the city largely intact and its people in good health. That does not seem to be the overriding consideration in the fight for Aleppo.
CAPT DAVIS: Next, Phil Stewart with Reuters.
QUESTION: Thank you, General. Just to follow on that. I mean, has there been any decision by —
do you believe that there is a role for the Iraqi Shiite militia in the liberation of Mosul? That’s been a big concern from a lot of the folks for humanitarian reasons.
GEN. MACFARLAND: Yeah, well here’s the thing. The government of Iraq is in charge of this war. We’re here to support them. So, who they — 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.
QUESTION: Can you give us an update on — I know you said that Manbij was during liberation, could you give us a update on where that stands and you know, short of being a staging ground for — leading to a bigger fight in Raqqa, what does that mean, you know if war — what happens?
GEN. MACFARLAND: Well, you know Manbij is pretty well invested now and most of the city is now in the hands of the Syrian Democratic Forces.
The pocket of enemy resistance shrinks on a daily basis in Manbij and the enemy resistance is getting weaker by the day. So I don’t give it very long before that operation is concluded and that will deal a decisive blow to the enemy because Manbij was a stride, a key line of communication that leads to Raqqa. And that will disrupt the enemy in of itself.
But also, Manbij was a node that the enemy is for foreign fighter training and facilitation for external operations attacks outside of Iraq and Syria. So they may re-locate or try to re-constitute that capability elsewhere but it won’t be as convenient for the enemy if they do that and it won’t be as effective. So Manbij is an important objective for us and it would be one more nail in the enemy’s coffin.
QUESTION: Could you just declare a day or two from the operation or how many…
GEN. MACFARLAND: So I always like to say, cite it, and I would say we’ll — it won’t be months it will be weeks maybe, maybe less than that, a week, two weeks. 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.
CAPT DAVIS: Ryan Brown? Do I have that right? Okay with CNN, go ahead.
QUESTION: Hello General and thank you for doing this I actually just — I had a question about there’s a recent report about a congressional investigation and to CENTCOM’s intelligence on the early days of the ISIS campaign. And that analysts said they were felt pressured to provide optimistic assessments.
Do you have any comments on that and have you or any of your staff ever felt pressure to provide optimistic assessments?
GEN. MACFARLAND: I haven’t seen the investigation I don’t know that’s it’s completed, finalized or anything like that so I have no comment at something on that.
QUESTION: If I could follow up on another — you talked about shifting the training a little bit away from counter-insurgency towards combined arms but there’s also this big concern about holding ground and the kind of whole coalition — when they here in Washington say that was a real strategic concern, was the ability to kind of hold territory and that ISIS will shift into a terrorism insurgency mode.
So can you talk about how do you decide how to balance that training between the two competing demands?
GEN. MACFARLAND: That’s a great question, so some forces are supposed to be counter-terrorism, counter-insurgency and some are supposed to be tailored — a word for this combined arms maneuver, decisive action type of fighting.
And so, the units that we’re using for clearing places like Ramadi and Mosul are the ones getting that tailored type of training. Other forces are getting the counterinsurgency training. The police forces in particular are getting the hold — the type of training they need to be a hold force.
And the counterterrorism service, it’s right in their name, what they’re actually supposed to be doing. So, right now they’re being used as light infantry assault troops and we want to get them back into their counterterrorism role as soon as we can.
QUESTION: Thank you, General.
CAPT DAVIS: And next, we’ll go to Cory Dickstein with Stars and Stripes.
QUESTION: Thanks, Sir.
I want to go back to Manbij for a second. Can you talk about how difficult — that fight’s been going on for a while. Can you talk about how intense the fighting has been in Manbij?
And I guess, you know, you talked about Fallujah. They had just kind of turned and run. What kind of lessons have you learned from that fight, particularly in Manbij, that may be you can project forward for Mosul and Raqqa?
GEN. MACFARLAND: Well, I can tell you Manbij must be pretty important to the enemy, because there are a lot of foreign fighters there and they haven’t cut and run, at least not many of them. So, they’re fighting pretty hard in that city.
So, and you’ve got to remember, Manbij is being fought by the Syrian Democratic Forces, not the Iraqi security forces. So they’re not rolling down the streets with M1 tanks and heavy D7 bulldozers that are clearing the rubble and pushing through. So it’s a different type of fight.
Manbij will inform us as to how we’re going to fight in Raqqa, as Ramadi has informed how we’ll fight up in Mosul. Different forces, different methodology, and quite frankly, different enemy perspectives on how they would fight. I would expect Mosul will have some of the characteristics of the Fallujah, some of the characteristics of the Ramadi fight. And Raqqa will resemble Manbij in many respects.
So we look at it. We study it closely and we’ll apply those lessons going forward to make sure we have the right capabilities, the force levels, and shaping efforts around that operation to ensure success.
QUESTION: Just following up. Can you talk about how successful the SDF has been? Have they been as good as you had hoped? Is there still a lot of room for improvement?
GEN. MACFARLAND: Actually, yes. They have been successful.
And they have really gone a long way to assuring us that they can be the defeat mechanism for the enemy in Syria, at least around Raqqa; that they have the wherewithal, the capacity, the will to close with and defeat the enemy in a dense, urban fight. And they’re doing a very good job of it.
Now, they’re taking some pretty significant casualties. They’ve lost dozens of their own fighters killed and several hundred wounded. But they’ve inflicted massive casualties on the enemy, who are in the defense. But we estimate well over 2,000 enemy killed so far.
So, they’ve — they are actually a pretty respectable fighting force, and they only have to be better than the enemy and they have shown that they are.
QUESTION: I have just one last quick one. Do — you see the — do they need more equipment than what they have now? Is what they have sufficient?
GEN. MACFARLAND: Well, what they’ve had was obviously — has been sufficient for Manbij. We’ll take a look at what they need for Raqqa.
CAPT DAVIS: Next to Andrew Tilghman with Military Times.
QUESTION: Thanks, General. Could you tell us about what the situation on the ground is in the places that — on the Iraq side, in the places that ISIS has lost while you’ve been there: Ramadi, Fallujah, maybe even Tikrit.
Who is holding those? Have the clearing forces entirely left and a group of holding forces moved in? Are there enough holding forces there, and to what extent are you seeing pockets of resistance?
GEN. MACFARLAND: Yeah. Actually, around Ramadi, the — it has been a success story.
The holding forces have done well, and they’re actually continuing to expand the secure zone out into the Iraqi desert, push the enemy ever farther away. And this has been a mix of Iraqi army, CTS, local police and tribal forces. So, the model seems to work well.
Now, the challenge is, the enemy — and particularly in Ramadi — left behind a huge number of what we call explosive remnants of war, ERW. That’s going to take a great deal of effort to clear out. Now, that process is underway, but it’s going to be a while, because the number of explosives left behind is incredibly dense.
And from time to time, there are some casualties as a result of that, just like every now and then, somebody and some farmer in Belgium will turn up a shell from War World I. That’s probably going to happen in places like Ramadi for quite a while, too.
QUESTION: And if I could just follow up. What is that experience indicate about what you expect to see in Mosul? Would you expect to see in Mosul a situation similar to Ramadi?
A lot of damage, a lot of these explosive remnants of war and kind of a very slow clearing process?
GEN. MACFARLAND: I think there will be parts of the city or the surrounding areas that are like Ramadi. But I don’t think any of them will be exactly the same.
Keep in mind, the thing about Ramadi was, the vast majority of the people, like 90 percent of the population evacuated the city when Daesh rolled in.
That’s not true in Mosul. In Mosul, the vast majority of the people are still there. So, it’s kind of hard to rig a house as a house-borne IED when people are in it. It was a lot easier to do it in Ramadi.
In Fallujah, there weren’t as many of those house-borne IEDs and obstacles built into the city. There are number of them, quite a few, but not as dense as Ramadi.
But that was another city where a lot of the population remained behind. So, I think that it kind of depends on what the density of the population is, maybe inversely proportional to the density of the obstacles.
Now, that’s a — that’s a theory. It is yet to be proven out. We’ll find out when we get to Mosul.
CAPT DAVIS: Next, we’ll go to Gordon Lubold with the Wall Street Journal.
QUESTION: Hi, General. Two questions.
You spoke to the challenges of working in the same kind of battle space as the Russians battle those kind of challenges are currently? How many missions are they flying over in Syria and have there been any other kind of close calls similar to the ones that have been reported in the last couple of weeks? And then I have a second question.
GEN. MACFARLAND: OK, well the answer to your first question is the number of close calls has dropped dramatically once we established the de-conflicting line at the — our air operations center down in Al Udeid uses — with the Russians. That said, the Russians do fly in and conduct attacks on very short notice in Syria but it has not in any way hindered our operations. We continue to go after the enemy where we need to go after the enemy.
The thing is, that we do, is we obviously — we keep an eye on it. And we have told the Russians in very clear terms following their strike on the tribal fighter camp in Southern Syria, “hey we don’t want you to strike here anymore” and they’ve respected that since then. But we watch them.
QUESTION: When are they flying and striking ISIS?
GEN. MACFARLAND: They’re mostly flying and striking, as they always have, against the Syrian opposition.
QUESTION: And then the separate question is, I think we were told last week that kind of some of the pre-kind of softening approach in Mosul had been kind of assessing the number of fighters and what they’re doing and I think that ISIS had turned off the internet, as it were, inside there to kind of isolate the people there.
I’m wondering if you can just kind of expand a little bit on what are you guys able to do in Mosul pre-Mosul if you will, and what’s the challenge of having this kind of information isolated population that you’re ultimately going to try to protect?
GEN. MACFARLAND: Well, you’re asking me about a cyber kind of a question and I’m really not going to talk about that. So I will just say that we are active in the cyber domain and we will be active in the cyber domain in the Mosul operation.
CAPT DAVIS: Next to Bill Hennigan with the Los Angeles Times.
QUESTION: Hey General, in your opening statement you mentioned that there were 45,000 fighters, ISIS fighters killed since the beginning of the campaign. And then we’ve also heard that the flow of foreign fighters has been staunched largely. So I was wondering what the current assessment was of ISIS’s — the number of ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria, and I was also wondering how that compares to two years ago when the campaign kicked off?
GEN. MACFARLAND: Yes, and you know the thing about these numbers is they’re pretty soft, pretty squishy. It’s why we don’t typically close them a lot.
But what I do believe is that the number of fighters on the front line has diminished. They’ve diminished not only in quantity, but also in quality. We don’t see them operating nearly as effectively as they have in the past, which makes them even easier targets for us so as a result they’re attrition has accelerated here of late.
You know, we had this big engagement of this big convoy that tried to escape from Fallujah and they kind of made themselves easy targets for us. I don’t think they would have made that mistake a year or two ago.
So, I think that the — overall, the flow of foreign fighters has been reduced as well. And that contributes to the decline in the effectiveness of the enemy on the battlefield.
QUESTION: Do you still believe that their fighting capacity is still in the neighborhood of 30,000, as we’ve been hearing for, you know, the last year or so?
GEN. MACFARLAND: Well, here’s the thing. They can grab a bunch of people minding their own business off the street, throw them in the back of a pickup truck, and drop them off at a checkpoint with some AKs and say, “defend this checkpoint.” And they’ve done that. We’ve seen them do that in places.
So, how many of those people are there against their will? How many of them are trained? How many can you really call a fighter? We know that they’ve taken a lot of their administrative folks and pushed them out to the front lines. They’re not really supposed to be there. It’s not their number one function within the so-called caliphate. So, they are able to make good some of their losses.
That said, even in — even with doing that, in the aggregate they’ve lost the ability in a number of places. For instance, by losing the whole lower Euphrates River valley, obviously they can’t do that between Haditha and Baghdad. Now, they have to go get somebody and bring them all the way across the desert to reconstitute somebody who gets killed fighting near Ramadi or Haditha or someplace like that.
And there’s a good chance we’ll spot them long before they get there. And as soon as they demonstrate hostile intent, then we’ll take them out. So there is a cumulative effect, I think, that is really accelerating in our favor and against the enemy.
So how many fighters do they have on any given day? I’ve seen estimates that are up and down the scale, from the number you cited to somewhere in the neighborhood of half of that. I don’t know. All I know is when we go someplace, it’s easier to go there now than it was a year ago. And the enemy doesn’t put up as much of a fight.
CAPT DAVIS: OK. Kevin Baron with Defense One.
QUESTION: General, thanks.
I wondered if you could just take a step back. You know, you say you were there the first time around in the Iraq war. You’ve been through it again this time. What’s different as you leave, as the war commander, that the American people should think that this time it will hold? That a post-conflict peace will hold, that Iraqi politics will hold, that the U.S. commitment will hold?
In your mind, how do you — how do you leave? What’s your feeling?
GEN. MACFARLAND: So, I’m not going to speak to the political stuff because I’m not wearing a tie. 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 battle space, they’re on their own for the most part.
So, can they do this? Sure, they can do this. And it’s up to — 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.
QUESTION: A follow-up. Earlier, you mentioned Manbij being week — weeks away and then Raqqa comes next. So as you leave, do you think the U.S. and the coalition will get to Raqqa before the Russians and the Syrians?
GEN. MACFARLAND: I always bet on the United States, so I’ll put my money on the nose of Uncle Sam.
CAPT DAVIS: We’re almost out of time. But David Martin with CBS News.
QUESTION: General, you said that Iraqi security forces in Qayyarah are in position to begin the process of the liberation of Mosul. Does that mean that Qayyarah has now been fully converted into the logistics hub that you envision it to be and that all it’s waiting for the operation to liberate Mosul is a political decision in Baghdad?
GEN. MACFARLAND: No. No, we still have to — we still have quite a bit of work to do in Qayyarah Air Base. So — and in the — in the neighborhood as well, so not quite. Not quite there yet, but it’ll get here.
QUESTION: The — what’s the status of U.S. personnel at Qayyarah?
GEN. MACFARLAND: I am not going to go into exact locations of U.S. personnel right now, but we have freedom of movement. I’ll just leave it at that.
CAPT DAVIS: OK. We can do one more quick one here from Kristina Wong of The Hill. Excuse me.
QUESTION: Thanks, General. Thanks for your efforts out there also. First can you tell us the number of troops on TDY in Iraq and Syria.
And then on the 400 U.S. troops deploying to Iraq soon, will they be advising the Iraqi forces during Mosul — the Mosul offensive? Or are they just setting up Qayyarah?
GEN. MACFARLAND: Most of the 400 are part of the package that are intended to create this logistics space that David was asking about.
So when you talk about advise, we advice and assist with logistics as well as with combat operations, so I guess the answer is yes. But the — let me see. What was the first part of your question, again? Sorry.
QUESTION: The number of U.S. troops on TDY in Iraq and Syria.
GEN. MACFARLAND: There’s probably a reason why I blocked that question out from my memory. Yeah, that we don’t typically talk about numbers of TDY forces. It’s a small fraction of the number of FML forces. It fluctuates. But as a matter of policy, we don’t talk about that because those are folks that just kind of come in for a little while and then go back out again.
But we operate within a very clear-cut set of business rules that we adhere to rigorously and report daily up to CENTCOM on how many of each type we have on hand. So I would defer that question to my higher headquarters.
CAPT DAVIS: And General, I know we’re out of time, here. We want to thank you for joining us today. Did you have any closing comments for us?
GEN. MACFARLAND: No. It’s been a privilege to command the coalition forces here from all of our partner nations to — and of course, including our own services — Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps. Always a privilege to lead America’s sons and daughters and I am grateful for the opportunity and it’s been a truly humbling experience.
Thank you very much.
CAPT DAVIS: Thank you, sir. Thanks, everybody.
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