Three months after the United States began conducting airstrikes against terrorists from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the top U.S. military commander for the Middle East today described the progress made toward degrading and destroying the group as “significant.”
“I think we’re having a significant effect on the ISIL element,” Army Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, commander of U.S. Central Command, told an audience at the Atlantic Council. “The question is, how soon can we get the Iraqis to develop a capability to do what they need to do to sustain the effects and conditions that we’re going to create.”
Hundreds of U.S. military advisors have been in Iraq since June, advising and assisting Iraqi security forces in their effort to take back the estimated one-third of the country -- including Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul -- that ISIL terrorists now control.
“Fortunately, over the past few months, we have seen some progress made by the Iraqis,” most importantly, Austin said, the formation of a new Iraqi government that has pledged outreach to Sunnis, Kurds and other minorities. U.S. officials have said it was the alienation of those groups by the previous Iraqi government that led to the rise of ISIL and the rapid territorial gains and support it has garnered.
Impact on ISIL
Austin said the airstrikes conducted by the U.S.-led coalition over the past few months in both Iraq and Syria have forced ISIL fighters to stop traveling in large convoys, flying the flag of their self-declared caliphate, and easily communicating.
“They are afraid to congregate in any sizable formation, because they know that if we can see them, we’re going to engage them, and we’re going to get what we’re aiming at,” Austin said, adding that the group’s ability to generate revenue also has been disrupted.
“ISIL continues to lose capability on a daily basis because of the pressure that the coalition has put on them,” he said.
Still a Potent Adversary
However, Austin, as other Pentagon officials have, cautioned that the campaign to degrade and ultimately destroy the group could take years, and he made clear that despite the progress so far, ISIL remains a formidable enemy made up of seasoned fighters.
“This adversary is about as good as I’ve ever seen,” the general said. “A number of folks who are in the ranks of this organization have been in this business before, so they have learned the lessons of Iraq and other places, and they really understand the value of trying to dominate the media space. And they work that very, very diligently.”
The general said he would not hesitate to ask for “more capability” to defeat ISIL if he and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff believe that is necessary. And, he said, he would welcome any additional contributions to the fight from Turkey, a member of the coalition, who he said “has skin in the game.”
“I think they will add value no matter what,” Austin said, “but the more access, basing and overflight rights we can get, I think, the better off we will be.”