U.S. Department of Defense
|Presenter: Lt. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend||July 12, 2017|
CAPTAIN JEFF DAVIS: Good afternoon.
And General, we just want to make sure we can hear you and you can hear us.
LIEUTENANT GENERAL STEPHEN TOWNSEND: I have you loud and clear. How me?
CAPT. DAVIS: Great, sir.
And ladies and gentlemen, we're pleased to be joined today by General Stephen Townsend, the commander of Operation Inherent Resolve, coming to us live today. Sir, I think you're in Baghdad. Is that right?
GEN. TOWNSEND: That's right.
CAPT. DAVIS: I'll turn it over to you, sir, for some opening comments, and then take questions from here.
GEN. TOWNSEND: OK. Thank you. Good afternoon, everybody, from Baghdad.
As you all know, yesterday evening the Iraqi prime minister, Dr. Haider al-Abadi, announced the liberation of Mosul. The global coalition fighting ISIS again congratulates Prime Minister Abadi and the Iraqi Security Forces on this historic victory against an evil enemy.
The Iraqis prevailed in the most extended and brutal combat I have ever witnessed, while making extraordinary efforts to safeguard civilian lives, even at the cost of their own. The list of martyrs is painfully long.
So now ISIS has lost its capital in Iraq and the largest population center they held anywhere in the world. Iraqi militia forces, Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, and the global coalition also deserve a share of the credit for their sacrifices to achieve this hard-won victory.
Make no mistake, this victory alone does not eliminate ISIS, and there's still tough fighting ahead. There are still pockets of resistance in Mosul, hold-outs, and hidden IEDs that will take weeks to clear, as well as remaining ISIS enclaves in Hawija and western Anbar.
There are also humanitarian and stabilization efforts desperately needed to ease the suffering of Mosul citizens and start the city on the road to recovery. Though the Moslawis have suffered greatly, the east side is already springing back to life less than six months after its liberation. And Moslawis have already started to return to their neighborhoods in the west.
But still, the loss of one of the twin capitals and a jewel of their so-called caliphate is a decisive blow to ISIS and certainly something for the Iraqis to celebrate. They can also celebrate the remarkable turnaround their security forces have made in the course of the past three years.
Turning to Syria, our Syrian Democratic Force partners, mostly Arabs, began their assault to liberate Raqqa on the 5th of June. Thirty-seven days later, they have completely surrounded the city and achieved good progress on both their eastern and western axes of attack.
About one week ago, with coalition assistance, the SDF breached into the ancient citadel of Old Raqqa in the central part of the city. We should not forget that ISIS has had more than three years to prepare the defense of Raqqa. While SDF operations are off to a good start, resistance has been stiffening, and we know this is not going to be an easy fight. We said that about Mosul, but many seem to be surprised when it turned out to be true.
Finally, there's been a lot of media interest in the whereabouts and status of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Despite all the helpful reports to us from every source imaginable, I'm unable to confirm or deny where he is or whether he is alive or dead. Let me just say for the record, my fervent hope is it is the latter.
In closing, ISIS is an evil enemy who will resort to any lengths to maintain their hold on the territory they claim as their caliphate. But make no mistake, it is a losing cause. Our partners in the international coalition against ISIS will stand side by side against ISIS until they're defeated in both Iraq and Syria.
And with that, I'll take your questions.
CAPT. DAVIS: We'll start with Lita Baldor from the Associated Press.
Q: Hi, General. It's Lita Baldor with A.P.
Two things. Can you -- yesterday, you talked about Raqqa formerly being number two, and now being the number one effort. Can you give us a sense of what the U.S. forces may do to expand their effort there? And what that means for the fight for Tal Afar?
And then secondly, can you just address the charges about massive civilian casualties in Mosul, and suggestions that there was a lot of imprecise bombing?
GEN. TOWNSEND: Lita, can you say just the last part? I got the question about Raqqa and what it means for our efforts there and Tal Afar. And then the second part was about can you address the charges about massive civilian casualties in Mosul. And I couldn't quite make out the second part.
Q: Sure. And suggestions that there were imprecise bombings by the U.S. and the coalition.
GEN. TOWNSEND: OK. OK.
So your first question there, what does it mean for the campaign ahead. I don't really think you'll see a great expansion of our efforts against Raqqa. We already have a very robust effort to support our Syrian partners in their assault on Raqqa.
I think what we will probably see, it would be a greater level of resourcing, possibly some more ISR and strike resources. But I don't think there will be a significant change in the weight of effort. It will become more of a priority now that Mosul is concluded. I think that's right, being as it's the global capital of the Islamic State's caliphate.
Then what does that mean for Tal Afar? I think that -- you -- you know, I think the Iraqis will need a little bit of time to reset and re-posture. I think they -- they probably -- well, first of all, they got to finish the fight in Mosul.
There's a lot of mopping up and back-clearing to be done. There are -- as I mentioned in my opening statement, there are holdouts and hideouts that have to be found and run to ground.
So, that -- that'll take a bit of time. I think they'll -- they'll take a bit of a rest, a well-deserved rest. They've already got a plan in the works for Tal Afar. And, I think, here in the coming few weeks, you'll see that plan unfold.
(Inaudible) -- will not be affected by our operations in Raqqa. So, I think that's the first question you asked. Then, the second question, can I address the -- the -- the charges of massive civilian casualties in Mosul? Certainly, there are civilian casualties in Mosul, no doubt about it.
I reject the -- any notion that coalition fires were any -- in any way imprecise, unlawful, or excessively targeted civilians. I would challenge the people from Amnesty International, or anyone else out there who makes these charges, to -- to first research their facts and make sure they're speaking from a position of authority.
I would -- I would argue that this is, I believe, the most precise campaign in the history of warfare. And we have gone to extraordinary measures to safeguard civilian lives, measuring, every single time, how many civilians we think may or may not be in the target area, and what munition to employ, and how can we strike that building and take out only that room and not the entire floor or the entire building. All of these things are factored into every single strike that number in the tens of thousands now.
And, you know, these factors are weighed for every single strike. So, I reject the notion that we've inordinately targeted civilians. In fact, make no mistake about it, there are civilians that have been killed and injured in the battle of Mosul. It's a horrible part of war. And we've done everything we can, and the Iraqis have done, also, everything they can to prevent civilian casualties.
I -- I watched a remarkable video a couple of days ago. The federal police emergency response division, as the soldiers were crawling out under sniper fire, into a rubble field, to pull two injured civilians -- one who had already been wounded, and both were shot by ISIS. And they were laying in the open, and these Iraqi soldiers were crawling out under fire to pull them to safety. This scene played out hundreds of times over the nearly nine months of combat in Mosul.
CAPT. DAVIS: OK. Idrees Ali, from Reuters.
Q: Sure. General, I -- I understand that when Mosul has been retaken, there are obviously a lot of -- a few other cities that have to be retaken. So, in terms of, sort of, the future of U.S. forces in Iraq, do you foresee the same amount remaining in Iraq? Or do you think that number is going to go down now that Mosul has been retaken?
And the second part is, obviously, Prime Minister Abadi has sort of dealt with some of the issues that led to the Islamic state rising, but do you think he's sort of allayed all the concerns that led to the rise of the Islamic state? Or is more left to be done from a political standpoint to make sure that the Islamic state or some other organization by another name doesn't arise in the future, requiring you to come back or deal with them again?
GEN. TOWNSEND: OK. Thanks for the question. I didn't get your name, but appreciate the question.
So regarding future U.S. forces, will they go down now that Mosul is concluded? I don't anticipate they'll go down, mainly because of what I said in my opening statement. Mosul is just a major -- certainly a significant accomplishment, but the rest of Ninawa province, to include the population center of Tal Afar, still has yet to be cleared. Hawija still has yet to be cleared. Western Anbar still has yet to be cleared.
So this fight is far from over. So I wouldn't expect to see any significant change in our troop levels in the immediate future because there's still hard work to be done by the Iraqis and the coalition.
Now, as far as post-ISIS, the Iraqi government has expressed an interest in having the U.S. forces and coalition forces remain after the defeat of ISIS. Our government is equally interested in that, as are several coalition governments have expressed an interest in joining in that effort.
That's still in the decision-making stages. I think it's in the final decision-making stages. But -- and I don't want to intrude on the decision space of my leaders, but I would anticipate that there will be a coalition presence here after the defeat of ISIS. Certainly, I'm reasonably sure it will be smaller and roles will be a bit different, more in the train-and-equip line of effort that we're doing now, but I think we'll be doing that after the defeat of ISIS.
So I think that's going in a right direction. And I think all of us can look back to the end of 2011 when the U.S. and coalition forces left Iraq the last time, and saw what played out in the intervening three years. So I -- I don't think we want to replay that.
As far as the political way ahead, I think that the prime minister of Iraq, Dr. al-Abadi, has done a remarkable job in, one, leading -- he's -- I mean, he's a wartime commander in chief, a head of state as a commander in chief. He's done a remarkable job, I think, leading the military effort, as well as trying to reach out to all stakeholders to achieve this historic political reconciliation.
There's still a lot of work to be done on that. And I think you've hit on the central issue there -- what will happen after the defeat of ISIS rides not on whether there's a coalition presence or not, in my view, but predominantly rides on whether there's a political reconciliation. I think the primary condition that caused the rise of ISIS was the fact that a significant portion of the Iraqi population, in this case the Sunnis, felt disaffected. They felt like Baghdad was not their government; didn't represent their interests.
And we've got to make sure -- the Iraqis have to make sure after ISIS is defeated, that all Iraqis view the government in Baghdad as their government. And I think that's probably the most important thing. There's a lot of work to be done in that area.
CAPT. DAVIS: OK. Courtney Kube from NBC News.
Q: Thank you, General.
Two things from -- two follow-ons. The pockets of resistance left in Mosul, can you just give us any sense of -- I know it's hard to say, but how many ISIS fighters you think may still be in Mosul?
And then -- and then projecting out a little bit, Hawija and Tal Afar and the other areas you mentioned that need attention next, do you have any sense -- do you think it's fair to say that ISIS will be expelled from the country of Iraq by the end of the year? Can you give us any timeline like that?
And then I know you mentioned Baghdadi in your opening statement, but I just have to ask. Do you have any reason to believe that he may still be alive? Have you seen any proof of life recently?
Thank you. And I'm sorry for that last question.
GEN. TOWNSEND: OK. Thanks, Courtney.
As far as the number of fighters remaining in Mosul, no one really knows. My own staff today suggested to me it could be as many as a couple hundred. I really kind of hesitate to even put out that number because, like I said, I don't think anybody really knows. I do know this, this afternoon, there were some ISIS offers to negotiate surrender. And I was pleased to hear that the Iraqi commander's response was one familiar to Americans who studied our own Civil War. The Iraqi commander responded unconditional surrender is his position.
So, there are fighters still there hidden in these pockets. Some are not hidden. We know where they are in their holdouts. And I think that clearly, the Iraqi Security Forces control the city. There are buildings here and there and parts of blocks here and there that we know have fighters in them and they have to be very deliberately cleared, and it's going to be painstaking and dangerous.
We also know that there are bypassed holdouts. We haven't cleared every building in this city the size of Philadelphia. That's going to have to be done. And there are also hidden IEDs. And there are still going to be losses in the Iraqi Security Forces as they continue to secure Mosul.
As far as the timeline for expelling ISIS for -- from the rest of Iraq, I think it was Yogi Berra who said making predictions are tough, especially if you're talking about the future. My track record is not great. I thought it would take about six months to clear Mosul. That was my conservative estimate. It took right up, almost to the day, nine months to do it. So I don't have a good record. I wouldn't hazard a guess.
I just now that there are enemy enclaves in Hawija, enemy enclaves in western Anbar. The Iraqi Security Forces and the coalition have a plan to get after them. And we will move with all due speed to do that. And however long that takes, I wouldn't guess. We'll be at it until it's done.
Then your question about Baghdadi, alive or dead. I really don't know. I don't have a reason to believe that he's alive. I don't have proof of life, you know. The Russians some weeks ago claim to have killed him in an airstrike. I think it was in the latter half of May or last week of May, you know, somewhere between Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor, I think they said.
We -- we -- I've received some reporting since then that suggested he was not killed there by the Russians, but I don't know. Since then, we've heard all kinds of reporting that he's alive, that he's dead. Quite honestly, don't know. I Hope he's deader than a door nail. If he's not, as soon as we find out where he is, he will be.
CAPT. DAVIS: OK. Laurie Mylroie, from Kurdistan 24.
Q: Thank you, General Townsend, very much, for doing this. I have one question and one follow-up.
You emphasized the importance of the political situation after ISIS and reconciliation, stabilization. As you know, the Kurdish region -- regional government will hold a referendum on independence on September 25. Do you think that will affect, one way or another, the fight against ISIS?
GEN. TOWNSEND: Yes. So, we're following the -- the Kurdish regional government's announcements that they'll hold a referendum on independence in September. You know, I think our -- the position of our government is that this is not helpful for the campaign, right now, certainly. It's not helpful in the coalition's fight, the world's fight against ISIS.
I think I agree with that. I think it -- there probably will be some impact on the -- the counter-ISIS campaign. I don't know fully what that impact might be. I just know that there are frictions enough with our current situation.
This is really hard, and we probably don't need any members of the team, here, doing things to make it harder. And I'd -- I would -- my own view is, that this effort by the KRG to have this independence referendum, whether it's the right thing to do or not, is not my position to judge. But I do think it'll have some kind of impact and -- and apply additional friction to the campaign.
You said you had a follow-up?
Q: (Inaudible) -- now I have two -- two follow-ups now, if I could. Do you think that it could lead -- contribute to political stability after ISIS is defeated?
GEN. TOWNSEND: I -- I'm sorry, I didn't quite make that out. Could you say that again?
Q: Do you think that after ISIS is defeated, that a referendum on independence could contribute to stability in the region?
GEN. TOWNSEND: You know, ma'am, I'm a military leader, and I think I'll just confine myself to that. I am not going to go down the rat hole of -- of -- of trying to judge whether or not the Kurds should have a vote, or be independent or not.
I just know that having the vote, here this fall, probably is going to apply friction that we don't need on our counter-ISIS campaign. I'll leave it at that. Thanks.
Q: My follow-up to the other questions. Regarding Baghdadi, whether he's alive or dead, it kind of reminds me of Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, who was dead for like a year before anyone realized it. Does it matter?
GEN. TOWNSEND: Well, I don't know. It'd make me feel better if -- to know that he was dead.
I -- I don't -- I suppose it probably doesn't really matter. If no one knows if he's alive or dead, someone is guiding ISIS, the organization. And what we have seen with all these paramount leaders is you -- you take them out, and someone else steps up.
So if he is dead, that means someone's running ISIS. And I -- I think that they're trying to keep it -- his death quiet for their own morale.
I think it would be a blow to the enemy's morale. It would probably uplift I think our partners. So in that way, I think it probably does matter. As far as the prosecution of the enemy's plans, I'm not so sure that it does matter. I mean, they're like any bureaucratic organization, to include our own forces. We have a succession of command. They have a succession of command. And I think they would implement it.
So, I just know it would make me -- make me feel a lot better if he were dead.
CAPT. DAVIS: (inaudible) from -- (inaudible).
Q: Thank you, General.
Can you tell us whether there's any OIR participation or assistance in implementing the current cease-fire in western Syria? And then for any of your monitoring efforts, can you tell us whether the cease-fire has been holding, as the president has claimed?
GEN. TOWNSEND: OK. So, there is not CJTF-OIR participation in the cease-fire in southwestern Syria. That's not our charter. And I appreciate the fact that my leaders in Tampa and in Washington have kept that off our plate.
And I don't know any more about it than probably you all do, getting the reports that you're getting back there, and reading the press. That's how I would get information about the cease-fire holding or not holding.
I've got my full plate of stuff to do here, and so I don't spend a lot of time delving into things that are not my responsibility. So sorry about that.
CAPT. DAVIS: Next to -- (inaudible).
Q: Wyatt Goolsby with EWTN, the Catholic Network.
General, you have mentioned the importance of protecting civilians. But we know that ISIS even nowadays continues to use innocent civilians, women and children, as human shields. How do you go about -- how do Iraqi troops and coalition forces go about ridding the rest of Mosul from ISIS militants and still protecting those who are being used as human shields?
GEN. TOWNSEND: Well, so protecting civilians is a very high priority concern. But it's not a commander's only concern. A commander, first of all, must accomplish their mission and must defeat the enemy. They also must protect their own forces. And despite the requirement to protect their own forces, their own forces will risk their own lives to protect Iraqi citizens. And we saw that time and time again.
So they're going to do their level best, and we always do. They do. We try to help them. We do our level best when we're supporting them in combat operations. The whole team tries to determine whether civilians are present or not. And if there are, is there a way to accomplish the objective without bringing harm to those civilians.
Despite all those efforts, civilians will get caught in the crossfire. Civilians will get hurt. Civilians will get killed. And that's sad and it's an unavoidable part of war. And commanders have to press on despite that.
So, I think they'll continue as they clear Mosul to do what they've done up to this point, and try to avoid additional civilian casualties. And I would -- I think I would urge everyone to kind of look at where the responsibility for civilian casualties really lies. It lies with ISIS. ISIS took an entire city of a million people hostage and held them for nearly three years under brutal conditions.
And as they tried to escape to safety, shot them -- cut them down with machine gun fire and sniper fire -- men, women and children trying to flee in the latter stages of the assault on Mosul, west Mosul; killing them by the hundreds. I think the day -- I think it's June the 1st. It's somewhere in the first few days of June, ranks right up there with the worst we've seen of civilian casualties, where ISIS machine gunners and snipers from the 11-story-high al Jamuri Hospital shot civilians as they tried to flee to safety.
So that -- that's where we ought to keep the focus of civilian casualties, right where it belongs, squarely on the shoulders of ISIS.
CAPT. DAVIS: (inaudible) from -- (inaudible).
Q: Hi, General. Thanks for doing this.
There are some reports that the coalition -- a coalition strike mistakenly hit -- (inaudible) -- position near Raqqa, killing nearly 40 SDF fighters. Could you comment on that? Because there are a lot of reports out in the Middle East.
GEN. TOWNSEND: Yes, I can't. I don't know what strike you're talking about. We do probably in the neighborhood of 100 aerial engagements a day, plus or minus 10 or 20. And I don't know which one you're referring to. So I wouldn't hazard a guess.
Q: Also, just to follow, on Mosul, there are some pictures of western Mosul coming out. And the Mosul -- (inaudible) -- mosque has been hit from the dome, like as if it's coming from the airstrikes. Could you comment on the collateral damage while attacking the ISIS targets inside Mosul city, and the destruction of the infrastructure or the buildings, historical relics in the -- in the old city?
GEN. TOWNSEND: Yes. So, there's a significant amount of destruction on the west side. I think probably double the destruction from the east side. We had 100 days of combat on the east side. And towards the end of that 100 days, the FLOT advanced, the friendly forces advanced very rapidly. And what we've learned is that the faster the friendly troops advance, the less destruction of infrastructure there is and the fewer civilian lives are lost.
When -- when fronts become stationary, and you have two modern -- relatively modern forces with high explosives slugging it out for a period of days on a stationary front, it -- the destruction just skyrockets and so do civilian casualties, and casualties on both sides of the fight.
And this is the kind of fighting we saw on the west side. So we knew that from the very start. I've addressed this body before, and I've said that we started on the east side because we thought the fight would be easier there.
We knew that the fight on the west side was going to be tougher, and we knew that the fight in Old Mosul, the central part, that was the enemy's citadel, their final fallback position. We knew it was going to be tough there as well, even tougher.
And so, we saw that. It took about 142 days of combat, more than a third more days of fighting, on the west side to clear the west side of the city, and the FLOT was stationary for weeks on end in some places.
So, I'm not surprised at the level of destruction from all means, enemy, Iraqi and coalition, have -- has -- is significant on the west side.
Now, what we see is a -- generally, a -- a broad distribution of about 25 percent heavy destruction, probably another 25 percent of moderate destruction, and then another, you know, 25 percent of lighter destruction, lighter damage.
So -- so, that's sort of a rule of thumb that I could roughly characterize it. But there are parts -- certainly there are parts of West Mosul that are heavily damaged. And where the fighting was hardest and longest, the most damage.
Q: Thank you.
CAPT. DAVIS: Thomas Watkins from Agence France-Presse?
Q: Hello, General.
Just a quick follow and then one question.
When you were talking to Idrees' question earlier about -- you -- you said that you anticipate that there will be a coalition presence in Iraq after the defeat of ISIS, would you personally be advocating for something akin to like a -- a permanent U.S. presence in the country?
And my -- my question is, can you tell me what specific attempts there have been by foreign fighters to leave not just Mosul, but Iraq and Syria; and how you're -- how you're stopping them; and if you're seeing any significant numbers going back to Europe or Southeast Asia?
GEN. TOWNSEND: OK.
So, on the first question, I -- I'll reserve my -- I -- my advice to the -- my chain of command.
So, there's a -- there are -- there is a proposal that our government's looking at, and I alluded to the fact that all the governments seem to be in favor of having a -- a continuing presence here after ISIS is defeated -- coalition members as well. So, I think our -- the leaders need to now decide that. And that's where that decision lies.
As to your second question about preventing the escape of foreign fighters, you've heard our -- you may have heard our secretary of defense talk about annihilation tactics or an emphasis on annihilation. And that's one of the things he's talking about there is not allowing foreign fighters to escape.
So, we don't control the battlefield across all of Iraq. So, the enemy can come and go in places. He's largely contained in Hawija -- the Hawija pocket, contained to the east by the Kurdish defensive line, and contained to the west by an Iraqi defensive line.
That's still fairly permeable. And folks that really want to get in and out of there can.
There are few restrictions on the enemy's movement in the Anbar area.
But in Mosul and in Tal Afar, there are isolation -- deliberate rings -- isolation rings put in there, belts of soldiers that have cut off those two cities from ingress and egress. And Mosul is pretty well locked down.
And to -- as an example, ISIS fighters have been resorting to jumping into the Tigris and trying to float or swim down river to escape. That's fairly desperate, especially when the river banks are -- on both sides are held by the Iraqi Security Forces and air -- American aircraft are overhead.
So, there's not a good way in and out of Mosul for the enemy. Same thing with Tal Afar. And as the Iraqi Security -- it's already isolated from both Mosul and westward, escape to Syria or reinforcement from Syria. And as the operation progresses towards Tal Afar, it -- that isolation will become stiffer, stronger, thicker.
Now, Raqqa is likewise isolated. The -- when we started the assault on the 5th of June, we did not have a complete physical isolation on the ground. But we did have the Euphrates River there that cut off the city to the south. All the bridges are down. All the dams are held by our Syrian partners. And every time we found a boat, we sunk it.
So, there was not a good way to get out of Raqqa since the start of the operation. And now the Syrian Democratic Forces actually linked up on the south side of the city. So, there's a physical band around Raqqa now preventing escape or reinforcement.
And this is our tactic here. We're not trying to let anybody out.
I already mentioned the surrender offer of some of the remaining fighters in Mosul. And they're -- you know, they were turned away and -- and told that you -- "There's no negotiation. You just -- if you want to surrender, then come out with your hands up."
I think the -- we'll pursue a similar outcome in Raqqa. Their options are to surrender or be killed.
CAPT. DAVIS: OK. (inaudible)
Q: Thanks for doing this, General.
Can you talk a little bit about your basing and facility needs and how they might change post-Mosul? I mean, will you need or has the coalition asked for any more temporary facility?
GEN. TOWNSEND: Basing -- oh, OK, basing you said.
Well, I don't think that we will need more facilities. We have a fairly robust footprint here that's fairly well distributed around the country mainly for the purpose of defeating ISIS.
I think that a future footprint would be smaller and probably use a subset of the bases that we have today. So, I'm not anticipating a lot of -- I'm not anticipating needing more bases for post-ISIS.
There may be temporary facilities that we need to prosecute the rest of this campaign against ISIS. And if we need those, we'll put those bases up to finish the fight against ISIS.
Q: Yeah, and just to quickly follow up, I mean, as you're finishing the campaign towards ISIS post-Mosul, do you assess that there are any changes you'll see from ISIS on the battlefield just in the way they conduct themselves strategically or tactically?
GEN. TOWNSEND: Yes. We actually -- we -- certainly, we do.
In fact, the enemy has been, conveniently, fighting us in the -- in the way that a standing conventional army might fight us, other than using suicide bombers and vests and things like that. They have -- they've chosen to take and hold ground and defend that ground. And that is something that our partners are well designed to counter.
I think that what we'll see is as the -- ISIS is -- comes under greater and greater pressure, they will devolve into a more insurgent-like method of operation. They'll try to hide with the population. Their cells will get smaller. Instead of companies and platoons, they'll go to squads and cells, much smaller elements hiding in the population. They'll disperse. They'll be smaller. They'll be more covert.
In one -- in some ways, that's an easier security problem for the security forces to handle. In other ways, it's more difficult and there are challenges with that. So we'll have to adapt our security force partners over time to deal with less -- something less than the conventional force threat that they're facing now and something that looks more like an insurgency in the future.
CAPT. DAVIS: Carlo Munoz with the Washington Times.
Q: Hey, sir, thanks for doing this.
Two quick questions. One, you mentioned earlier that you don't anticipate any troop numbers within the U.S. or coalition forces going down. With the offensives coming up in Hawija, western Anbar, Tal Afar, do you anticipate possibly needing in the short term, mid-term additional troops to support those offensives?
And I have a follow-up, sir.
GEN. TOWNSEND: OK. I'm not going to really talk about what our needs are to the resources that we might need to prosecute the campaign here in the next stages. I think that's probably information that the enemy would want as well. So I'm going to take a pass on that. And here's what I believe. If we need a resource, I'll ask my chain of command. And they've been really responsive in hearing us out and answering the needs that we can clearly communicate to them.
So I'm confident that if we do need something, that our chain of command will respond, but I prefer to keep that in those channels. Thanks.
Q: And just a quick follow-up. You talked about the -- Secretary Mattis's sort of annihilation strategy, where encirclement of cities, and then the assault again to ensure foreign fighters don't blow out. But you also mentioned, too, that the Hawija pocket and areas of western Anbar, there's more freedom of movement for I.S. fighters there.
Given that it seems you can't apply the same strategy that you were -- that you're going to Tal Afar, to places like Hawija and western Anbar, and given the fact that I.S. will sort of devolve into this insurgency-type approach, can we expect to see a counterinsurgency-type offensive in Hawija and western Anbar? And if so, that seems to be a very, in the past, manpower-heavy type operation.
GEN. TOWNSEND: OK. So, I didn't really mean to imply that we wouldn't apply the same isolation and annihilation tactics in Hawija and al-Anbar that we're doing in Mosul and Tal Afar. It's simply a matter of priorities. We haven't got there yet. So there is enough forces down there now to fix, is the tactical term, contain -- the enemy in Hawija.
But containing a military force is different than preventing the flow of small groups of individuals or individuals coming and going. It's a much, much harder problem. Now, that's really -- that's an isolation there.
And so we will get to that in Hawija. I didn't mean to imply that we wouldn't. It's just that the army's focus, the security force's focus is in Ninawa today. And we have that type of very solid isolation in Mosul and we will emplace that -- we will achieve that in Tal Afar as we begin operations toward Tal Afar.
Hawija and al-Anbar, we'll apply that as we can when the time comes. It's just not in place now and it's just not possible to -- it takes a lot of resources to be able to do that. So I -- I'm not sure that we'll see a counter-insurgency type of fight in Hawija. I think that there's a fairly straightforward enemy problem set in Hawija, for example.
But we -- we do know that our Iraqi Security Force partners will have to engage in counterinsurgency-style operations at some point. And we are already making efforts now to start shaping their training toward that next ISIS tactic that I talked about a few minutes ago.
But what we're seeing right now is that the Iraqi Security Forces are well prepared to do -- to fight the fight that they're in. And just because they're implementing a counterinsurgency strategy I don't think has implications for our own troop levels, if that's what you're getting at.
CAPT. DAVIS: OK. (inaudible) -- Stars and Stripes.
Q: Thanks, General.
I'm wondering in the immediacy, as things in west Mosul shift toward stabilization efforts, what -- what role, if any, do American forces have in that capacity? Could -- could you use engineers or anything like that? Have the Iraqis asked for anything like that? And do you see any, you know, any reason why U.S. forces might stay in Mosul past clearing these last few pockets of ISIS?
GEN. TOWNSEND: Yes. I don't really see a significant role for U.S. or coalition forces in the stabilization effort. The Iraqis really aren't asking us to do that. And there are folks here -- I mean, there's a government of Iraq with ministries that are capable. And the United Nations and various nongovernmental organizations are here to help them.
So the -- the stabilization effort that I think we'll be involved in is to continue to advise Iraqi Security Forces in the consolidation of the liberation of Mosul, and into the initial stages of the hold. So, an attack like this progresses in stages. You have seize, and you still have pockets of resistance that have to be mopped up or cleared out.
We're just now coming to that conclusion of the seize phase. We're entering into what's called consolidation. So, during consolidation, you expand your security, mop up, clear out the holdouts and the hideouts, and establish a security posture, a hold force.
So, we'll continue to advise during that phase. That's still, really, part of seizing the objective.
At some point, the Iraqi Security Forces will transition to a hold effort. And so, using Fallujah as a model, Ramadi as a model, we did not leave forces in there, very long, after the security situation transitioned to the Iraqi government's responsibility.
I would anticipate something similar in Mosul. I think Mosul's big enough that we'll be there probably longer than those previous example. And just as an example, on the east side, we left a very small advisory team there, for military advisers and police advisers, to help the Iraqi Security Force leaders establish security on the east side. That also is a direct supporting effort to our assault on the west side.
So, I think we'll have something similar to that. There's going to be a large complex operation to establish this hold over Mosul. And even while Tal Afar is underway, there'll probably be some advisers that will remain in Mosul advising their Iraqi counterparts on the security part of the hold. But I don't think you'll see coalition forces significantly involved in the -- the stabilization efforts. It's not required -- it's not our charter, and it's also -- they're not asking us to do that.
Q: Hello, General. Thank you for doing this.
As -- as, kind of, Mosul now has been recaptured, have you seen any evidence that there were foreign external terror plots being plotted by ISIS, in Mosul? Have you collected any information that would, kind of, point you that those, kind of, operations were still being planned out of Mosul? Or is that, kind of, all since gone towards the Euphrates River Valley area, kind of, out in the Mayadin area?
GEN. TOWNSEND: Yeah, so, it's been some time since Mosul was the site where a lot of external operations plotting was taking place. In fact, Mosul has been cut off, largely, from ingress and egress since about late November, early December. And then, another line of isolation was in place by the Iraqi Army, in March.
So, if -- it got really difficult. It started getting hard to get in and out of Mosul in the winter, and it got really hard in March. So, the folks whose -- the ISIS fighters whose job it was to do external operations, plotting and planning, probably exfiltrated before that. That's our assessment. And they went into the -- they either went into Syria or they went into the middle Euphrates River Valley that you referred to.
So, there -- we think that there are some individuals who are associated with external operations plotting that remained in Mosul. We're not sure why. We don't think they remained there to do their external operations plotting, that just got really hard to do as the assault on Mosul unfolded.
But they -- these guys are multi-role individuals. So, I think some of them either didn't get out when the getting was good, or they had another role, which was, to -- they were also tasked with leading the ISIS defense of Mosul. That's my -- my gut to that.
I don't think they failed to see the door closing in time. I think they probably were -- were external operations planners, but also military leaders. And they were told, "You've been selected to defend Mosul to the end."
So we're still trying to chase down a couple of those individuals that we think are out there.
CAPT. DAVIS: (inaudible)
Q: Thank you.
General, I want to ask you. Twice now, you've referenced this offer of surrender from either an ISIS commander or commanders. Can you provide us with any further details about what that involved? When exactly it happened? Were there any demands that they wanted in exchange for surrender? And were there any threats if some surrender agreement wasn't reached?
GEN. TOWNSEND: I don't have a lot of details on it. But I'll tell you what I know. So, yesterday prior to the prime minister's announcement of the liberation, an ISIS commander communicated to the Iraqi Security Forces that he wanted to surrender a group of fighters.
And the Iraqi security force commander sensed that something was amiss. And he said, "OK, fine, but you have to come out in small elements." And they wanted to come out as a group, and he told them, "No, you come out with your hands up; leave your weapons behind; come out with your hands up in small elements."
And they declined to do that. Our assessment was -- we saw then later in the day a wave of suicide attacks come out. And we assess that that actually was a ploy, a desperate ploy by an Iraqi -- by an ISIS leader to actually get the Iraqi security force to allow a large group of fighters to come out and allow them to get close before they sprung an attack. That's our assessment of yesterday's activities.
Today, I got a report, and I don't have a lot of details, but I got a report that they communicated that they are interested in seriously surrendering now. And that was playing out as I was making my way over here for this conference.
So I don't -- I don't know what's become of that. I just know that the Iraqi security force leaders are making those decisions. We're advising them. Our advice is if you're in a position of great strength, there's absolutely no reason to entertain any demands by these ISIS fighters. And the Iraqis took that on board and replied that unconditional surrender is the only option.
CAPT. DAVIS: OK. Almost out of time, but two real quick ones, Barbara Starr and then Kevin Barron. .
Q: General Townsend, I want to go back to Baghdadi, because you said several things I don't think I've heard you say before. First of all, if I'm recalling from several minutes ago, you said you don't have any reason to believe he's alive. You then said after the Russian reports, you received information he wasn't killed, where those reports indicated he was killed. And then you went on to talk in detail about your assessment of how ISIS could be running right now by someone else if he was dead.
Well, let's go back to the first thing you said. You have no reason to believe he's alive, plus the rest of this. Candidly, is your increasing assessment that he's no longer alive? It seems to be what you're telling us here. (inaudible) -- is it your assessment?
GEN. TOWNSEND: Is this Barbara? Is this Barbara Starr? I didn't quite catch your name, but I'm recognizing the voice. Is this Barbara? I can't see you all, by the way, so --
CAPT. DAVIS: Yes, it's Barbara.
GEN. TOWNSEND: OK, Barbara, if you're -- I think you're reading between the lines here, a little bit. I don't know how to say it any other way. You all keep asking me, so I try to keep up -- coming up with another way of saying it. I don't have a clue. Simple as that.
So, don't know if he's alive, don't know if he's dead. I don't know where he's alive. I don't know where his dead body is. I don't have a clue. I'm not trying to (inaudible) anything. If you all keep asking me, I'll -- I'll try to come up with another artful way of saying it. But that's the bottom line. Don't have a clue.
Q: You have no reason to believe he's alive? That doesn't indicate anything.
GEN. TOWNSEND: Nope, don't have a reason to believe he's alive, don't have a reason to believe he's dead.
CAPT. DAVIS: OK. Kevin Baron, Defense One.
Q: So, on Baghdadi -- no, I'm just kidding.
Hi, General. Two things.
One, last week, we had Tillerson say, you know, he wanted to start seeing the groundwork laid for cooperation with the Russians for post-ISIS and possible (inaudible) all sorts of things. Has any of that reached down to you? Any planning, any requests for plans, anything -- any -- is there anything happening with that at your level?
Secondly, you -- you mentioned some of this before, but if you could talk about the effort for building partner capacity was really the foundation for the Americans in participation in this conflict there, and for laying this security for Iraq the second time around, I guess, if you will. Why should Americans think it should be different? What have you seen with that -- that -- that leads you to believe this Iraqi Security Force is different than the last one?
GEN. TOWNSEND: OK, on your first question, I -- I didn't quite get the connection there. You -- you talked about Secretary Tillerson seeking plan and guidance. I didn't quite get what you were referring to. Were you referring to Iraq, or were you referring to Syria?
Q: In Syria, for that one, for cooperation with the Russians on -- you know, beyond this -- this confliction line. You -- you know, it was thrown out there that even no-fly zones, the -- anything -- anything in the future that -- that leads toward greater cooperation with the Russians. Has any of that filtered (inaudible) for plans, do you have plans in the works?
GEN. TOWNSEND: Yeah, I -- right now, what we're doing is working. I haven't been tasked to provide input or new ideas about how to do more with the Russians.
What we're doing with the Russians, now, it seems to be working fairly well. Those channels have been quietly working, despite some tensions -- diplomatic tensions out there. The -- the military mil-to-mil channel here has -- in theater, has continued to work quietly and professionally, and helpfully. And so, we do deconfliction with the Russians. And that is -- is working for now. And I -- I think we'll continue to find ways to keep that effective.
On the building partner capacity question, you're absolutely right. And I mentioned in my opening statement that -- that this Iraqi force has made a remarkable turnaround in less than three years. And what it shows is, it shows the value of what good training can do for a -- an army, and what good leadership can do.
The Iraqis have, by necessity, promoted leaders who are effective, and they have been eager to attend the training that the coalition has provided. We have trained some 12 brigades: the Iraqi Army CTS brigades, a couple of those; a couple of -- built and trained a couple of brigades of Peshmerga fighters.
So that's taken a long time. But the Iraqis have been good partners in all of that, and I see -- I think they see the value in all of that; thus, the interest in keeping that capability here after the defeat of ISIS.
So as the army that's on the field now -- and I'm using "army" in a broad sense there, the -- the Iraqi army, the counterterrorism services, the federal police, emergency response -- (inaudible) -- et cetera -- is that army, different than the one that was struggling to hold their capital three years ago. Most certainly, it is different -- far more capable, far more effective.
Now, the question is, can they maintain that? I think the answer to that is, what's your willingness to promote leaders by merit, rather than political affiliation in the future? What's your willingness to -- to continue to train?
And right now, they're expressing a desire to do all those things, and they're expressing a desire for the coalition to stay after ISIS is defeated and help them do those things.
So I'm optimistic about it. But if any of those conditions don't hold -- if we don't stay to do that, or if we stay, but they're not interested in training anymore, or if we stay, but they want to make security force leaders a political -- leadership positions a political prize -- then -- then I think then we don't maintain the security forces that have just achieved victory in Mosul.
CAPT. DAVIS: Thank you, General.
General, with that, we're out of time. Did you have any closing words for us before we sign off, sir?
GEN. TOWNSEND: Yeah, I'd like to thank you all for letting me address you today, and thank you for your questions.
You know, I've talked a lot about the -- the Iraqi Security Forces and our Syrian partners who are out there doing this fight. I -- I think I'd want to convey to you all, and the American people, that not only are our partner forces doing what's good for them, ridding their countries of this evil scourge, ISIS. But they're also doing a -- a -- a humanitarian service to the region, and to the world. And fighting, and killing these fighters here in Iraq and Syria, chasing down these foreign fighters, and killing them here is doing the entire world a service. And we -- we should remember that.
And then I -- the last thing I would say is I haven't placed much emphasis on the contributions of our coalition troops. But our coalition troops are working their tails off. Fortunately, they're not engaged in direct ground combat themselves. But our airmen are fighting every day. Our seamen are out there, launching aircraft, from aircraft carriers every day. Our general purpose force ground troops and SOFs, special operations forces ground troops are forward. They're advising. They're firing artillery and rockets, and they're advising their partners.
And, sometimes, they're living in incredibly austere conditions. I have visited our troops in Mosul, and -- and our troops were living in rubbled buildings, sleeping on the ground, or sleeping in their trucks, living out of their trucks and their rucksacks, forward on the battlefield in rubbled buildings, next to an Iraqi command post, so they could be there to support them, and advise them, and help them.
And, I think, people don't under -- really have a good view of what our troops are doing. Our troops are doing remarkable service out there, in very austere and risky conditions. And though they are not engaged in ground combat, direct ground combat, they're still, I think, doing a great service, at risk, themselves. And I'd like the American people to know how important it is that this victory there is, this victory in Mosul, and the ultimate victory against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, is being borne also on the shoulders of American and coalition troops. Thanks.
CAPT. DAVIS: Thank you, General.
Thank you, ladies and gentlemen.
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