The U.S.-led effort to destroy the Islamic State terror group in Iraq and Syria likely will require additional American troops, but the top commander on the ground wants to stick with the region’s local forces as long as possible.
“As we extend operations across Iraq and into Syria, there is a good potential that we’ll need additional capabilities, additional forces to provide those capabilities,” Army Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland told Pentagon reporters Monday.
Briefing from Baghdad, the commander of Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve was cagey when asked about what additional capabilities or forces might be required, adding that bringing in more American or coalition “boots on the ground” was not his first choice.
“Certainly we’ll do everything we can to continue this campaign by, with and through the indigenous forces that are on the ground,” MacFarland said. “That’s really the best way to defeat the enemy.”
Since the start of the bombing campaign against Islamic State group in August 2014, the U.S.-led coalition has launched more than 10,000 airstrikes against targets in Iraq and Syria.
U.S. officials credit those strikes with blunting the advance of Islamic State fighters, who at one point seemed poised for an attack on Baghdad, but now have lost an estimated 40 percent of the territory they once held in Iraq.
U.S. and coalition forces also have helped to train about 20,000 Iraqis, including soldiers, police and Sunni tribal fighters, to combat Islamic State. Also involved were some of the Iraqi brigades that retook late last year Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province.
Efforts to empower local ground forces, however, have not been without complications.
Despite retaking Ramadi, Operation Inherent Resolve officials estimate they will need to build from scratch eight to 10 Iraqi brigades, each with 2,000 to 3,000 troops, in order to wrest control of the key northern city of Mosul from Islamic
State. And even two of the brigades that helped retake Ramadi will need to undergo additional training before they are ready for more operations.
Finding partners on the ground in Syria has been even more challenging for the U.S.
Partnering with various Syrian groups
Despite budgeting $500 million for a Syria train-and-equip program, the U.S. was forced to abandon those plans after it fell far short of reaching its goal of an initial force of 5,400 moderate Syrian fighters. Fighters that did graduate from the U.S. program also failed to make much of an impact, with some units disintegrating upon reentering Syria.
Instead, the U.S. has been partnering with various Syrian groups with some degree of success, especially with the Syrian Kurds, while also relying on U.S. special forces to conduct raids, take out high value Islamic State officials and gather intelligence.
U.S. military and intelligence officials say the approach is starting to get results, pointing to evidence that Islamic State is having trouble paying its fighters while the flow of new recruits from around the world also has begun to slow.
Critics, though, have long been urging more must be done.
“The actions we’re taking, it’s really more right now just containing them [Islamic State], at least in the Syria and Iraq region,” the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Republican Bob Corker, told VOA.
Corker expressed hope that recent developments, like the spread of the Islamic State terror group to Afghanistan and to Libya, will “cause us to step up our operations.”
Still, MacFarland believes the defeat of Islamic State is just “is a matter of time” — at least in Iraq.
“We're at the end of the beginning,” he said. “When we got Ramadi back, that proved that the Iraqi security forces have the wherewithal, have the skill to defeat the enemy in open battle, and that is a tremendous signal.”
But the Operation Inherent Resolve commander admitted Syria is a more complex problem.
“I can’t direct any force on the ground other than my own,” MacFarland said. “It’s really a matter of influence.”
And he does not see the battle against Islamic State in Syria truly turning until forces there are able to take Raqqa, the capital of the group’s self declared caliphate.
“That would be a really strong signal that the enemy is in its final death throes,” said MacFarland.