National Security

U.S. envoy offers rosy update on campaign against Islamic State

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov slast Friday in Moscow. The 40-nation coalition battling the Islamic State is holding meetings in Washington this week.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov slast Friday in Moscow. The 40-nation coalition battling the Islamic State is holding meetings in Washington this week. AP

U.S.-backed Iraqi forces have reclaimed about half of Iraqi territories under Islamic State control, though “serious problems” persist, complicating plans for a major offensive to retake the northern hub of Mosul, U.S. envoy Brett McGurk said Tuesday.

McGurk, the U.S. ambassador to the anti-Islamic State coalition, recounted modest successes and listed many obstacles in an update ahead of an Iraq donor conference and a coalition summit in Washington this week.

Among his points:

– Raids by U.S.-supported anti-Islamic State forces in the city of Manbij, Syria, have captured an enormous amount of information – 4.5 terabytes, the equivalent of more than 2,000 hours of live-streaming video – on the group’s foreign fighters. That information, he said, would lead to a better understanding of how the foreign fighters were recruited, by whom and what the path they took to Syria.

– Of eight self-declared Islamic State branches, Libya is the most troubling, with a “sophisticated network” of fighters.

-- Capturing Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, is shaping up to be the coalition’s biggest challenge yet. Strategists have spent months preparing a plan for governing the city and providing needed services so that any future campaign to rout the extremists won’t leave a power vacuum. But key points about the operation are vague, including which forces would be fighting and whether there are adequate resources in place for what aid groups warn would be a massive humanitarian crisis.

“We have it in sight, but we have to do it right,” McGurk said. “Militarily, it has to be very well planned.”

While McGurk accentuated the positive – a more professional Iraqi military and a more responsive government in Baghdad – he didn’t shy away from setbacks such as a dramatic rise in suicide bombings and the human toll of long-term displacement.

“This is an enormous challenge and it’ll be with us for years to come,” McGurk said in the conference call. “But what we’ve done with this coalition is set the foundation to make sure that we’re doing all we possibly can to stay ahead of it.”

McGurk said the Mosul operation is among the top agenda items at the conferences in Washington this week.

McGurk also spoke earlier Tuesday at a U.S. Institute of Peace event where he introduced Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al Jaafari.

Before that audience, McGurk gave a rosy view of the Iraqi military, which crumbled two years ago as the Islamic State advanced. Today’s force is stronger, McGurk said, and hasn’t lost a battle in a year.

“They are showing increasing confidence, increasing professionalism, increasing capacity, and they’re liberating towns in Anbar Province through the Euphrates Valley and now moving up the Tigris River Valley and setting the stage for the Mosul campaign,” McGurk said.

On the ground, those successes come with caveats. Iraqi forces involved in the anti-Islamic State offensive are reliant on U.S. advisers and trainers. The Obama administration just last week announced a second troop increase in the last three months, saying 560 forces will head over for a total of more than 4,500 U.S. troops now authorized for Iraq.

Also, McGurk spent little or no time addressing Iraq’s deeply rooted sectarian problems across government institutions. Though he touted the fact that some 700,000 Iraqis have returned to their homes in newly reclaimed territories, he didn’t mention Sunni Muslim residents’ mounting claims of abuse at the hands of some of the Shiite militiamen tasked with holding the territory as the army fights elsewhere.

Hannah Allam: 202-383-6186, @HannahAllam

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