U.S. gen­eral opens up on fight against Is­lamic State

Baltimore Sun - - NATION & WORLD - By W.J. Hen­ni­gan

WASH­ING­TON — Gen. Joseph Vo­tel, com­man­der of U.S. forces in the Mid­dle East, trav­eled to the re­gion last week to take stock of the war against Is­lamic State in Iraq and Syria.

The U.S. mil­i­tary has sup­ported Iraqi and Kur­dish ground forces with airstrikes, train­ing and ad­vis­ing. In Syria, the Pen­tagon has backed lo­cal mili­tias made up of Kurds, Arabs and Turk­mens, with weapons and air sup­port.

Vo­tel agreed to dis­cuss what he heard from com­man­ders on the ground. Here’s an edited ver­sion of his com­ments.

Q: What chal­lenges lie ahead for Iraqi forces in the op­er­a­tion to re­cap­ture Mo­sul?

A: This op­er­a­tion can un­fold over weeks and months here, so be­ing able to main­tain mo­men­tum over that time is a chal­lenge. It’s a chal­lenge for any mil­i­tary, in­clud­ing our own forces. So it’s some­thing we need to watch.

We’ve also seen these spoil­ing at­tacks by the Is­lamic State in places like Kirkuk and Rutba. The Iraqis have ad­dressed those ef­fec­tively. They did it with lo­cal forces and were able to move (troops) in the im­me­di­ate area with­out hav­ing to draw off the main cam­paign.

Q: As the bat­tle for Mo­sul moves into an ur­ban en­vi­ron­ment, how do you limit the risk of U.S. airstrikes to civil­ians?

A: I think it’s note­wor­thy that as we be­gan the op­er­a­tion for Mo­sul, Prime Min­is­ter Haider al-Abadi, who ul­ti­mately ap­proved the plan, gave some very good guid­ance about how he wanted to use air power in and around the city. He wanted to fo­cus on com- Gen. Joseph Vo­tel gives his take about the war against mil­i­tants in Iraq and Syria. mand and con­trol nodes. He wanted to fo­cus on lo­ca­tions where the Is­lamic State had weapons and clear mil­i­tary tar­gets, so that we pre­vent more hu­man suf­fer­ing.

We’re cer­tainly re­spond­ing to re­quests for fire from Iraqi se­cu­rity forces on the ground, but we have an obli­ga­tion to make sure we know the ef­fects on the ground. (We learned) lessons from Ra­madi, where there was a lot of de­struc­tion as a re­sult of (mu­ni­tions) that were de­liv­ered. If you de­stroy it, it has to be re­built. So we will try to meet the prime min­is­ter’s in­ten­tion here.

Q: The pop­u­la­tion in Mo­sul is mostly Sunni Mus­lim. The Iraqi army is largely Shi­ite. Do you think Iraqi forces will be wel­comed as a lib­er­at­ing force?

A: My be­lief is how you do things is as im­por­tant as the things that you do. So how the Iraqi forces, sup­ported by coali­tion forces, con­duct them­selves speaks vol­umes. The way we con­duct our op­er­a­tions, mind­ful of the im­pact on civil­ians; the way that we try to help aid get in there quickly; the way we try to min­i­mize the suf­fer­ing; the way we get civil­ian lead­er­ship back in place; I think are all things that can be done in or­der to con­tinue to send the right mes­sage that Iraqi se­cu­rity forces are truly fo­cused on help­ing these poor peo­ple who have been un­der the thumb of the Is­lamic State for two years.

Q: How are plans shap­ing up to re­take Raqqah, Is­lamic State’s self-de­clared cap­i­tal in Syria?

A: In this case you have the Is­lamic State em­bed­ded in a large city, em­bed­ded in the pop­u­la­tion, so I think it’s a lit­tle bit dif­fi­cult. The first ca­pa­bil­ity that the force needs is a req­ui­site num­ber of fight­ers. They have to be trained. They have to be made ready, and in some cases they need to be equipped for these op­er­a­tions. Then they need the proper plan­ning that goes along with that.

Thep­hase we’re in nowis what I call the pre­pare and as­sure phase, where our forces on the ground are giv­ing their sup­port, build­ing up and gen­er­at­ing forces, de­vel­op­ing ca­pa­bil­ity for them to do this. What we’ll see next is an iso­la­tion of Raqqah and an as­sault on the city.

Q: Are you wor­ried about what comes af­ter the Is­lamic State?

A: I don’t think any­body has any il­lu­sions about this. The bat­tle for Mo­sul is an im­por­tant one, but it won’t be the last one. It won’t be suf­fi­cient for ad­dress­ing the ul­ti­mate de­feat of the enemy. As we break up the caliphate, we should ex­pect they will move into a mode that is more of what we as­so­ci­ate with ter­ror or­ga­ni­za­tions: smaller el­e­ments that are more dis­persed and not wor­ried about hold­ing ter­rain, but on con­duct­ing at­tacks. Our con­ver­sa­tions with Iraq have been along those lines and they rec­og­nize that they’ll have to be pre­pared for that.

MANUEL BALCE CENETA/AP

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