Lightning offensive in Tal Afar highlights Iraqi coordination, ISIS disintegration

A group of Iraqi soldiers relaxes on Sunday, Aug. 27, 2017, at a joint tactical base near Tal Afar. The town was declared fully liberated Sunday, but pockets of resistance remained in some outlying areas.


By CHAD GARLAND | STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 29, 2017

IRBIL, Iraq — The battle to reclaim Tal Afar was expected to be less grinding than the nine-month campaign for Mosul, but its lightning pace surprised many — highlighting both the Iraqi military’s capabilities and the militants’ disorganization, officials said.

After routing the Islamic State in a little more than a week, Iraqi forces on Tuesday battled an estimated 100 fighters who had fled to a village northwest of the city, a senior U.S. commander in Irbil said.

That action should be over in a day or two, said Army Col. Charlie Costanza, a deputy commander for the U.S.-led coalition backing the government forces.

The quick collapse of ISIS resistance in and around Tal Afar is a sign of Iraqi confidence and competence, bolstered by lessons gleaned from the bloody fight in Mosul and earlier operations, U.S. advisers said.

“Unlike ISIS, they actually increased their capability,” said Army Lt. Col. John Hawbaker, an adviser to the Iraqi Army’s 16th Division at a joint tactical base in Buwayd, west of Mosul, on Sunday.

Tal Afar was never expected to be as complex as Mosul, located about 50 miles to the east. The urban terrain was a fraction of the size and less densely packed, and far fewer civilians remained to complicate the battle. But it wasn’t expected to be easy, either.

Over breakfast on Sunday, some senior Iraqi officers at the operation’s headquarters in Makhmour expressed surprise that the troops were set to finish in about 10 days what planners had expected would take 40 days.

That evening, at a tactical base near Tal Afar, Army Col. Pat Work congratulated Iraqi commanders on their success as he left a meeting with Lt. Gen. Abdul Amir Rashid Yarallah, who led the operation.

Tal Afar, one of the last ISIS enclaves in Iraq and situated along the principal supply route for the militants, was believed to contain up to 2,000 enemy fighters.

It’s been an extremist bastion since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein, and it was home to many senior leaders of ISIS and its predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq. It is also where current national security adviser H.R. McMaster developed the counterinsurgency strategy that became a model for Gen. David Petraeus’ subsequent “surge.”

U.S. officials had prepared for the worst in Tal Afar, Hawbaker said. They thought battle-hardened ISIS fighters from Mosul might have passed on knowledge from that deadly campaign to help maximize the lethality of their tactics against the attackers, but those lessons didn’t seem to migrate west.

Many ISIS leaders who would have passed on the information were captured or killed in Mosul, Hawbaker said, and “as it turns out, dead men tell no tales.”

By contrast, the federal police units Hawbaker advised in Mosul used every break in action to train and disseminate new tactics from their operations in the city, he said. In the weeks before the Tal Afar operation they drilled on those skills.

Costanza said ISIS’s senior leadership was decimated in Mosul, leaving tactical units around Tal Afar disorganized, with “little groups fighting in different directions.”

Meanwhile, security forces mounted a coordinated offensive involving five division-size units, each converging on the town center.

“That’s complex for any army,” said Costanza, attributing the success in Tal Afar partly to that Iraqi-led plan, which was based on knowing ISIS struggled to fend off attacks from several directions simultaneously.

Another accelerant in the fight, Costanza said, was a monthlong campaign of airstrikes ahead of the offensive. That allowed government forces to move quickly, resulting in less collateral damage, he said.

The Iraqis made fewer calls for fire support during the actual battle, with some units making almost no requests, Costanza said.

Costanza, who is responsible for approving strike requests to support the advancing troops, said Tuesday he had just authorized an attack on ISIS rocket-propelled grenade teams firing on Iraqi forces.

“They’re taking contact right now,” he said. “They’re fighting street by street.”

The fight’s still not over, he said. Even after it wraps up, there remains work to be done beyond the initial liberation, such as hunting for hidden fighters and clearing the explosive devices littering the town.

Iraqi forces will likely refit, rest and reorganize after the battle, Costanza said.

But they’re already thinking about where they’ll strike ISIS next — they could even attack more than one ISIS stronghold at the same time. The group still holds the northern town of Hawija, near Kirkuk, and the towns of Qaim, Rawa and Ana, near the border with Syria to the west.

“This momentum that they’ve got — they’re going to take advantage of that,” Costanza said. “I think you’ll see the next combat operation quickly on the heels of Tal Afar.”

Twitter: @chadgarland

Col. Charlie Costanza, left, a deputy commander with the U.S.-led anti-Islamic State coalition, is pictured here in this video screengrab at a coalition ''strike cell'' inside a combined joint operations center in Irbil, Iraq, during a briefing on a proposed strike against an ISIS target on Tuesday, July 11, 2017.