US Col. Ryan Dillon remembers visiting Mosul soon after the Grand al-Nuri Mosque was blown up and Islamic State was defeated there in July.
“I was in Mosul with the commander of Nineveh Operations Center,” he recalled. Dillon has been the spokesman for the Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve since May. Iraqi security forces from a variety of units were deployed in the liberated areas of Mosul. Among them were the Tribal Mobilization Forces (TMF), mostly Sunni Arabs who answered the call to fight ISIS. “These folks are from these [liberated] areas,” Dillon said of those called “Sons of the City” by a local commander. “They know who belongs and who doesn’t belong and play a role in identifying who doesn’t belong.”
ISIS doesn’t belong, and even though it has been mostly defeated in Iraq, the US-led coalition, the Iraqi government and Kurdish forces are all trying to make sure there is no resurgence. Groups like the TMF are key to that.
In an extensive interview with The Jerusalem Post, Dillon laid out the successes of three years of war against ISIS and what might come next. On November 17, the town of Rawa fell to Iraqi forces. Located near the border with Syria, it was the last urban stronghold of ISIS in Iraq.
“The Iraqis went to Al-Qaim first and sealed off the border and maintained a presence so they [ISIS] couldn’t be reinforced and prevented any [ISIS fighters] that were attempting to try to flee and get out of there,” said Dillon. Across the border, the Syrian regime and its allies were also battling ISIS. This border area represents the last stand of the caliphate.
Since Mosul fell in July, Iraqi forces have conducted swift campaigns to liberate Tal Afar near Mosul, Hawija near Kirkuk and Akashat in Anbar Province. Around 10,000 members of ISIS fought to the death in and around Mosul from October 2016 to July. Since then, things have progressed more swiftly, as the Iraqi Army and other units such as the Federal Police and Popular Mobilization Forces learned to work together and carry out effective offensives.
The question is what comes next.
In its first incarnation as Islamic State of Iraq in 2006, the extremist group attempted to control Sunni areas of the country and was badly defeated by the US-led troop surge.
It regrouped between 2008 and 2013.
“We have seen they are going back to their traditional roots to hide in Anbar in the desert. So the next step in this campaign to defeat Daesh [ISIS] is identifying and preventing any kind of resurgence,” said Dillon.
Does this mean the coalition and the Iraqis are preparing to wage a counter-insurgency campaign? The coalition shies away from the term “counter-insurgency,” because it brings up memories of such COIN strategies in the past, including the surge and almost a decade of US operations in Iraq. “We have seen the aggressive patrolling by ISF [Iraqi Security Forces] in places like Nineveh, Hawija and Anbar,” said Dillon. The Iraqis have been finding caches of weapons and improvised explosive devices, IEDs, almost daily since these areas were liberated.
ISIS may be in hiding and planning attacks in three-to-five man groups, said the spokesman. The objective is to continue patrols and prevent attacks.
The campaign against ISIS, in terms of destroying the caliphate’s ability to hold territory, is nearing an end.
Around 103,000 sq. km., some 99% of the territory ISIS held, has been retaken since 2014. An estimated 8,000 sq. km. may remain in Syria and Iraq. Most of it is open space in the desert. The coalition estimates that 7.5 million people, including 4.5 million in Iraq, have been freed from ISIS.
By November 11, that was accomplished through more than 28,000 air strikes, 14,000 of which were in Iraq. While Dillon said the coalition doesn’t provide estimates on the numbers killed, in July, an officer from US Special Operations Command told an audience in Aspen that around 60,000 to 70,000 ISIS fighters had been taken down. To accomplish this, 74 partner-nations have joined the coalition, including 23 that provided troops. Most recently, on November 15, a Danish contingent of 30 troops arrived. Since the first coalition casualty in March 2015, a total of 19 coalition members have been killed fighting ISIS.
To win the peace after combat operations end, the coalition continues to train the ISF. A total of 124,000 Iraqis have been trained, including 44,000 army soldiers, 25,000 police, 7,700 border guards, 22,000 Kurdish Peshmerga, 14,000 members of the elite Counter-Terror Service and 10,000 of the Tribal Mobilization Forces. “This is a milestone,” said Dillon. “There is work to be done. We can’t just up and leave and allow any kind of resurgence.”
In 2014, part of the Iraqi Army disintegrated in the face of ISIS attacks.
“ISF have improved so much over the last three years,” Dillon stated. He said that Lt.-Gen. Paul Funk, commander of the Combined Joint Task Force, or CJTF, has “seen marked difference of the forces [between] then  and what is in place now.” The US has 503 soldiers in Syria and 5,262 in Iraq. The coalition has an additional 4,073 in Iraq and seven in Syria. This includes coalition members in the Al-Tanf garrison near the Jordanian border, where US-supported anti-ISIS fighters recently killed half-a-dozen ISIS members in a gunfight.
Now the coalition is looking to focus training on the kinds of threats Iraq will face in the future. Much of the training has been carried out by other nations while the US focuses on combat operations. That means moving from conventional forces to an emphasis on security, police work, border patrols and counter-terrorism operations. The coalition cannot provide a measure of when these kinds of operations and training will mean an end to the mission. “The Iraqis are getting better and better at their own training as well,” Dillon said. “They spent three years fighting a conventional war and they have a lot of experience.”
The coalition describes the focus of upcoming training as “niche and low-density.”
As the battle with ISIS winds down, there are still many questions about what the future holds. The war against the extremists was ordered by president Barack Obama, in part due to the horrendous atrocities ISIS committed in 2014, when it enslaved 6,000 Yazidi women and massacred thousands of men and elderly women.
What has become of the thousands who are still missing? Dillon said it’s important to keep reminding the world “how brutal and sick and twisted ISIS is.” He recalled the mass grave of 400 people near Kirkuk that was recently found, and the execution of 70 people last month in Syria. “I have to remind people what ISIS did in Tikrit with the [Camp Speicher] cadets, the 1,700 killed in one swoop [in June 2014].” Dillon has been to some of the mass-grave sites and seen videos of what took place there.
“They are just as bad as I thought they were when I took this job,” he said. However, tracking down individuals, such as Yazidi women, does not seem to be a coalition priority.
The mass murder that helped encourage world support for this campaign seems to have been obscured by three years of war.
Iraq also faces issues with the Kurdistan Regional Government. In October, Iraqi forces, some of them trained and equipped by the coalition, rolled into Kirkuk and clashed with Kurdish forces, some of which had also been trained by the coalition. This is not what the Americans had in mind when they went to fight ISIS, and a lot of pressure has been put to stop these clashes. “I think that our concern is that ISIS will feed off these tensions and they will feed off the discord,” said Dillon. He noted that there was an uptick in ISIS activity around Kirkuk after the clashes. “ISIS took the opportunity and exploited it to send attacks into areas. We are encouraged by the dialogue and that there has not been violence for several weeks.”
The clashes have also led to questions about what happens with the Kurdistan Training Coordination Center, which was set up by coalition partners to train the Peshmerga.
“I know these is training ongoing,” Dillon said. “The majority of it is on police and we are training to work with the government of Iraq and with the Kurds to identify what that training looks like. Nothing has been set in stone.”