- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London.
The commander of the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria said he is drawing up a variety of proposals for accelerating the fight against the terrorist group — some of which may require more U.S. troops on the ground in Iraq.
Speaking by teleconference from Baghdad with reporters at the Pentagon, Army Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland wouldn’t go into details about his plans, but his comments come days after Defense Secretary Ash Carter said the U.S. is “looking for opportunities to do more” in the fight. MacFarland would only say that the proposals he is drawing up would “allow us to increase the pressure on the enemy.” He said that not all of the options he is preparing call for more American troops, but “there’s the potential that we’ll need additional capabilities and additional forces…and we’re looking at the right mix.”
There are 3,700 U.S. forces have in Iraq, including some 200 Special Operations Forces who have been given the mandate to go after ISIS leadership both there and in Syria. The 17-month American campaign against the Islamic State has cost just over $6 billion.
The U.S.-led bombing campaign has killed an estimated 20,000 ISIS fighters, but McFarland said “we are closer to the end of the beginning of this campaign” than to its conclusion. He said “the beginning of the end would be when we get Raqqa back,” referring to the group’s de facto capital city in Syria.
The assessment comes as U.S. officials press key allies to contribute more to the fight, both on the battlefield and in the effort to rebuild the shattered Iraqi military. The Iraqi army all but collapsed in 2014 after the Islamic State pushed its way into Mosul and overran vast swaths of northern and western Iraq. Entire divisions scattered, leaving behind thousands of American-made military vehicles — including heavily-armored MRAPs and Abrams tanks — which were confiscated by the terrorist group.
During a stop in Paris last month, Carter said he had asked NATO members to provide “more special operations forces, more strike and reconnaissance aircraft, weapons and munitions, training assistance, as well as combat support and combat service support.”
Carter said at the time that in the coming months he would “expect the number of trainers to increase, and also the variety of the training they’re giving.” The Netherlands has since announced that it would expand its mission in Iraq to take part in in airstrikes against ISIS in eastern Syria. The Dutch have had four F-16s involved in the air war in Iraq since late 2014, and have deployed about 130 trainers for Iraqi troops. No other European ally has announced new levels of support for the fight since Carter’s visit.
In his comments Monday, MacFarland said that the recent reconquest of most of the ISIS-held city of Ramadi was a “turning point” in the fight for Iraqi forces, but wouldn’t provide a time frame for when Iraqi forces might make a push to liberate Mosul. There are still pockets of ISIS resistance in Ramadi, and Iraqi forces continue to fight house to house in some neighborhoods while picking through fields of improvised explosive devices that the group had planted around the city.
Although the expansion of ISIS has been checked in both Iraq and Syria, and the group has lost the cities of Tikrit, Baiji, and the area around Sinjar in Iraq, a recent analysis by the Institute for the Study of War concludes that ISIS remains “unchallenged in its core terrain across Iraq and Syria. The organization will likely retain this safe haven for the foreseeable future, allowing it to continue to resource and direct attacks on the West.”
Unsurprisingly, election-year presidential politics found a way into the general’s press conference. Asked about the wisdom of “carpet bombing” Islamic State strongholds, as has been suggested by Republican presidential hopeful Ted Cruz, MacFarland was unequivocal. Simply bombing large civilian areas is “inconsistent with our values,” he said, and the United States is “bound by the law of armed conflict,” no matter who it fights. “Right now we have the moral high ground and I think that’s where we need to stay,” he continued. “At the end of the day it doesn’t only matter if you win, it’s how you win.”
Photo Credit: AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images