WASHINGTON, D.C.: Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend took authority on Sunday (Monday in Manila) of the US-led coalition fighting the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria, vowing to destroy the terrorist group’s so-called caliphate within a year but admitting the war was far from over.
Townsend, who leads the 18th Airborne Corps, took over from Army Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland of the Third Corps, who headed the coalition for nearly a year – a period marked by steady progress in the fight against the militants.
The transition came just days after Iraqi forces pushed Islamic State fighters out of territory near the key western Iraqi city of Ramadi. Preparations are under way to retake the county’s second-largest city, Mosul, which the militants seized two years ago.
Mosul is considered one of the most important battles in the fight against the militant group. Another equally important battle will be for Raqqa in Syria.
“I don’t want to make promises, but I intend to have Mosul and Raqqa done on my watch,” Townsend told Stars and Stripes on the sidelines of Sunday’s ceremony. “With the fall of those two capitals, essentially, you have eliminated the physical vestiges of the caliphate.”
“The enemy at that time [will]have to crawl into holes and little villages in the desert and hide, and he’ll become an insurgency, which is a new and dangerous phase in its own right, and we’ll have to deal with that,” Townsend said. “But right now, my focus is on destroying the physical caliphate.”
Gen. Joseph Votel, commander of the US Central Command, who spoke at the ceremony, praised the momentum gained by the coalition under MacFarland’s leadership. Over the past 11 months, he said, local security forces trained by the coalition recaptured more than 40 percent of the territory previously held by Islamic State in Iraq and more than 20 percent previously held by the group in Syria.
The liberation of cities and towns in both countries set free nearly 800,000 people in Iraq and more than 1.5 million in Syria, Votel said.
Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve comprises 64 nations. It focuses on training, equipping, advising and assisting partner forces in Iraq and Syria, which include the Iraqi military, Kurdish fighters known as peshmerga and some Syrian rebel groups. To date, the US and its partners have conducted more than 15,000 air strikes in both counties. Most of the strikes were from American aircraft and were conducted in Iraq.
War ‘Far from over’
Despite the recent progress, Townsend warned that the war was “a long way from over.”
“There are hard days ahead,” he said. “I don’t think this war is anywhere near over. In a war the enemy gets a vote, and the enemy is going to throw some punches and he’s going to get lucky here and there. He’s going to throw some punches that we don’t see coming. I think it gets tougher the closer we get to defeating [Islamic State].”
The likelihood militants will transform themselves into an insurgency such as Afghanistan’s Taliban has some questioning whether US troops might get involved in another prolonged conflict.
“I’m not saying it’s going to be an enduring presence, but there continues to be a role for the coalition,” said outgoing spokesman for Inherent Resolve, Army Col. Christopher Garver.
Townsend, who previously commanded 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team and led Task Force Arrowhead on offensive operations across Iraq, has experience in Mosul.
His predecessor, MacFarland, had experience in Ramadi before the task force helped liberate it.
“There’s nothing you can do to substitute that type of experience,” said Army Col. Chris Doneski, outgoing deputy commander of operations for Inherent Resolve, when asked if a transfer of authority could thwart the coalition’s current momentum. “The mission will continue on. They will improve from our positions. They’ll see things we didn’t see.”
Officials from other coalition nations have also played down any concerns of a slowdown.
“I can absolutely guarantee there will be no loss of momentum. If anything, we got fresh legs now,” said Lt. Col. Douglas MacNair of the Canadian Army, the task force’s deputy public affairs officer.
“This is a chapter in human history that has to be dealt with. Daesh [IS] brings no benefit to anybody,” MacNair said, using the Arabic acronym for Islamic State. “My message to Daesh would be: Be worried.”