General says US military should have presence in Iraq long after ISIS defeat
By DREW BROOKS | The Fayetteville Observer, N.C. (Tribune News Service) | Published: July 1, 2017
The 18th Airborne Corps is expected to return to Fort Bragg in September, ending a year-long mission at the helm of the fight against the Islamic State.
By that time, Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend is certain the city of Mosul, Iraq, will be liberated from ISIS. He believes Raqqa, Syria, too, may be freed or well on its way to liberation.
ISIS is close to defeat, Townsend told The Fayetteville Observer from Baghdad on Monday.
But Townsend, the commanding general of the 18th Airborne Corps, Fort Bragg and Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, said he hopes the U.S.-led coalition has a role in Iraq long after ISIS is driven from that country, working with Iraqi forces to ensure they are trained and capable of facing the nation's threats.
That would be a big difference from several years ago. U.S. troops left Iraq in 2011 and did not return until 2014.
In that time, the Iraqi government was nearly overwhelmed by ISIS fighters who were on the doorstep of Baghdad itself.
“We’ve seen that movie before,” Townsend said. “My thought is to try something different.”
The general said it’s in the best interests of the government of Iraq, the U.S. and other coalition partners to keep a residual force in the country.
That lasting force, if one is ultimately approved, may or may not involve Fort Bragg soldiers.
With a little less than three months left in their mission in Iraq, the 18th Airborne Corps soldiers can be proud of their support, Townsend said.
Tens of thousands of square kilometers of territory have been wrested from ISIS control, and hundreds of thousands of people have been liberated, he said.
Now, Fort Bragg soldiers are helping train the troops who will be sent to replace them from Fort Hood, Texas.
Once home, Townsend said, the 18th Airborne Corps will turn its attention to its next fight, wherever that may be.
“No moss ever grows on the 18th Airborne Corps. It doesn’t sit at home very long,” he said.
Townsend said the international coalition is committed to making Iraqi forces successful.
“This is the world’s fight against a brutal ideology that has to be defeated, that has to be destroyed," he said.
The general saw ISIS' impact up close last month, when he was visiting troops near the front lines of the battle to free Mosul on the same day ISIS fighters destroyed the famed al-Nuri Mosque.
Townsend said he recalled looking out over the mosque and its famous leaning minaret a few hours before the 12th century landmark was reduced to rubble.
The destruction of the mosque was the latest priceless site to be ravaged by ISIS fighters, who are growing desperate as their territory in Iraq and Syria quickly dwindles.
“They’ve blown up mosque after mosque, church after church,” Townsend told the Observer. “They have destroyed history and archaeology and artifacts.”
The al-Nuri Mosque joins a list of historical sites destroyed by ISIS that includes the nearly 3,000-year-old ruins of the city of Nimrud, the tomb of Yunus — commonly known to Christians as the Biblical figure Jonah — and the sanctuary of St. Elijah’s Monastery and cultural artifacts that include the remains of some of the most important archaeological sites in the Middle East.
The latest destruction, Townsend said, came as ISIS continues to lose its grip on its largest population centers.
“Right now, the coalition and our partner forces in Iraq and Syria are attacking the twin capitals of ISIS — Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria,” he said. “They’re under pressure now.”
The group now controls less than two square kilometers of the city, the general said. And a full defeat was expected “any day.”
Townsend said Iraqi forces are clearly in the lead in the fight against ISIS.
That brings its own set of challenges, one of which is the pace of operations.
Working by, with and through partner forces means the coalition is not in charge of the timetable for attacks against ISIS, Townsend said.
“When your partners are doing the fighting, they ultimately make the decisions about what they’re going to do and when they’re going to do it,” he said.
Those decisions are not always as fast as the U.S. Army prefers to operate.
But this is a different kind of fight, Townsend said, with partner forces in the lead and making most of the sacrifices.
The Iraqi army has lost more than 1,000 soldiers and had about 5,000 wounded since mid-October, he said. On the U.S. side, two soldiers have been killed in that same time frame.
While Iraqi forces are in the lead of those efforts, there’s no denying the contributions of Fort Bragg troops, who number in the thousands in Iraq and include parts of the 82nd Airborne Division, 44th Medical Brigade, 1st Special Forces Command and 528th Sustainment Brigade.
Townsend said it would be difficult to name every Fort Bragg unit with an ongoing mission in the fight against ISIS.
“Suffice it to say, Fort Bragg troops are very well represented here,” Townsend said. “I’m proud to serve alongside of them.”
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