US and Iraq discuss military efforts to defeat the Islamic State

On April 3, administration officials, military leaders, senior Iraqi representatives and regional experts discussed views on Iraq at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Military efforts to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria are about six to eight months ahead of where officials thought they would be at this point, Army Gen. Joseph L. Votel, commander of U.S. Central Command, said. The success throughout the campaign has been quite extraordinary, he added.

CENTCOM commander Army general discusses stabilization posture in Iraq
Two Iraqi soldiers fire a mortar during a live fire exercise near Camp Al Asad, Iraq, Dec. 27, 2017. This training is part of the overall Combined Joint Task Force -- Operation Inherent Resolve building partner capacity mission which focuses on training and improving the capability of partnered forces fighting ISIS. (Photo Credit: U.S. Army photo by Spc. Travis Jones)

With major urban battles complete, the follow-up, especially in Iraq, has been rapid and has moved much faster than anticipated, Army Gen. Joseph L. Votel said, and now the effort is focused on cleaning up remaining ISIS forces and stabilizing the region.

"As we got ready to go into Mosul eighteen months ago, we tried to make sure that our military planning was very closely aligned to our development of stabilization planning and the humanitarian aspects that have gone along with that, as well as with the political planning that had to take place," the general said.

With the assistance of the coalition and with a lot of hard work by the Iraqis, Votel said, an Iraqi army that in 2014 was running away from ISIS is now one that by last fall was conducting major large unit operations of division and corps level.

The Iraqi security forces very quickly consolidated their success with a variety of other operations, the CENTCOM commander said, some with coalition support and many of them without coalition support to complete the liberation from ISIS that Iraq's prime minister announced in December.

Since then, he said, the Iraqis have continued to conduct a variety of additional operations -- some with coalition support and some without -- to consolidate their gains and go after ISIS' remaining presence.

"I think it's important to recognize in both of these areas that while in Iraq where we've liberated the terrain, [ISIS is] no longer governing, no longer exerting taxes, no longer performing governmental functions like they have in the past," Votel said. "But there still is a presence, and so the Iraqi security forces are very much focused on that."

The Iraqis also have begun to transition from major combat operations to what to what they need to do now, Votel said, which is more wide-area security operations. This will require them to develop a variety of military skills that will allow them to address the insurgent or guerrilla-type tactics that they would expect to see from ISIS at this stage, he added.

The general said the United States and the coalition are working closely with the Iraqi forces to help them recover and get back to normal.

"I do expect we will continue to see our alliance on the [Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service] as one of their principal fighting elements," Votel said. "They've been very strong since the beginning, and we'll continue to see that as the Iraqi security forces step up to the plate and begin to take on more of those tasks in the future."

Development of Iraqi border forces will be a heavy focus, the general noted, because ISIS operates without regard to borders, boundaries or any recognized norm.

"Along the way, we'll see the coalition forces with the United States continue to provide the support that the government of Iraq asks of them," Votel said. "This has been something we've been talking about with them for some time here, so that we do remain in a position where we can continue to help them professionalize, continue to help them develop into the security forces that the Iraqi people need and want to protect them in the future."

The military aspect was the easy part, the general said. The aftermath and the stabilization are much more challenging in the long run, he added.

Though ISIS still has a presence, Votel said, Iraq is in a pretty good place now in terms of security.