US commander fighting ISIS hopes caliphate's leader is 'deader than a doornail'

Key Points
  • Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend calls the defeat of ISIS in Mosul "a significant accomplishment" but added more work remains.
  • The general doesn't see the U.S. troop count in Iraq falling with the recapture of that country's second-largest city and insists Americans should stay post-ISIS.
  • Townsend said more resources may go to help the U.S.-backed Arab-Kurd alliance fighting to oust ISIS militants from the Syrian city of Raqqa, the caliphate's de facto capital.
Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the commander fo the U.S.-led coalition to fight ISIS, briefing reporters on Tuesday via teleconference from Baghdad.
Source: Defense Department

The commanding general leading the coalition fight against Islamic State doesn't expect the U.S. troop count in Iraq to fall despite Mosul's recapture, insisting American forces should stay post-ISIS to avoid repeating past mistakes.

"This fight is far from over," Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend told reporters in a press briefing via teleconference from Baghdad. "I don't expect to see any significant change in our troop levels in the immediate future."

At the same time, Townsend expressed hope Islamic State's leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was "deader than a doornail," but was unable to confirm reports the wanted terrorist had been killed by the Russians in an airstrike. "If he's not, as soon as we find out where he is he will be."

Still, he conceded it may not matter in some ways whether the ISIS leader is dead because someone else will step in to run the organization.

"What we've seen with all these paramount leaders is you take them out and someone else steps up," Townsend said.

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Then again, he said, it would be "a blow to the enemy's morale" if al-Baghdadi were confirmed dead. And the U.S. commander said it would also "uplift our partners" to know he was gone. So in that way it probably does matter."

The general called the defeat of ISIS in Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, "certainly a significant accomplishment" but added there are other population centers in the region that have yet to be cleared of remaining Islamic State militants.

Moreover, the coalition commander said despite the retaking of Mosul there was still "mopping up" to do there, including finding potential hiding places for ISIS militants, both above and below ground.

He called Mosul a "city the size of Philadelphia" and said the work still to be done was "painstaking and dangerous."

The U.S. military also believes there are numerous hidden IEDs, or improvised explosive devices, spread throughout Mosul that pose a danger to civilians and security forces.

Townsend was asked how long it would take to get rid of ISIS altogether from Iraq.

The general admitted his track record of prediction wasn't great, pointing out he expected Mosul to be recaptured in six months but it took nine months to accomplish.

"We'll be at it until it's done," he said.

As for the number of militants still in Mosul, Townsend believes it could be "a couple of hundred" but he wasn't certain that was accurate.

"I don't think anybody really knows," he said. "I do know this: This afternoon there were some ISIS offers to negotiate surrender. There are fighters still there, hidden in these pockets."

While there are surrenders reported, not all are taken seriously since there is a history of ISIS militants faking surrender and then detonating explosives, including suicide vests. In fact, Townsend said the surrenders have been part of "a desperate ploy" by ISIS.

Looking to the future, there's a possibility the U.S. or other coalition nations will retain a presence in Iraq even after ISIS is gone.

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"The Iraqi government has expressed an interest in having the U.S. forces and the coalition forces remain after the defeat of ISIS," he said. "Our government is equally interested in that as are several coalition governments."

The general said the post-ISIS role of the U.S. and coalition partners is in the "final decision-making stages" but he anticipates there will be a presence after the defeat of the terrorist group in Iraq. "I am reasonably sure it will be smaller and the roles will be a bit different — more in the train-and-equip line of effort."

He said the U.S. and its allies are mindful of what happened the last time U.S. forces left Iraq, in 2011. Ultimately, that decision opened the way for the rise of ISIS.

"I don't think we want to replay that," Townsend said.

He also responded to charges Tuesday by Amnesty International that "the U.S.-led coalition used imprecise, explosive weapons, killing thousands of civilians" during the recapture of Mosul. "Some violations may constitute war crimes," the group said in a statement online.

"Certainly there are civilian casualties in Mosul," the general said. And he quickly added, "I reject any notion that coalition fires were in any way imprecise, unlawful or excessively targeted civilians."

He also maintained that the campaign to retake Mosul was "the most precise campaign in the history of warfare. We've gone to extraordinary measures to safeguard civilian lives."

Meanwhile, the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces are working to retake the northern Syrian city of Raqqa, the Islamic State's de facto capital.

Townsend said there could be more resources put into the Raqqa effort, including additional intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assistance from the coalition or perhaps airstrike help — all to support SDF, the Arab-Kurd alliance, which the U.S. considers the most effective partner working with the coalition to defeat the caliphate.

Even so, he said, the U.S. military didn't anticipate "a significant change in the weight of effort. It will become more of a priority now that Mosul is concluded. I think that's right being as how it's the global capital of the Islamic State caliphate."

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