Department of Defense Press Briefing by General Townsend via teleconference from Baghdad, Iraq
Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend, commander, Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve; Major Adrian Rankine-Galloway, Pentagon Spokesman
MAJOR ADRIAN RANKINE-GALLOWAY: Good morning, everyone.
Today we're joined by Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend, who is the commanding general of Combined Joint Force-Operation Inherent Resolve. Before we get started, we'll do a quick radio check.
Sir, how do you hear us?
LIEUTENANT GENERAL STEPHEN TOWNSEND: I hear you loud and clear. How do you hear me?
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: Sir, we don't have your audio quite yet. Just please give us one second, sir.
Sir, can you say something again?
GEN. TOWNSEND: Do you want me to count or something?
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: Here we go. We have you, sir. Thank you.
And with that, sir, if you have any opening statement, please go ahead, sir.
GEN. TOWNSEND: I do. Thanks.
Good morning from Baghdad.
In 2014, the world watched in horror as ISIS seized more than 100,000 square kilometers of Syria and Iraq and brought more than 7 million people under its barbaric control. ISIS was something the world had rarely seen before. ISIS is the most evil entity I have encountered in my lifetime.
They did not hide their atrocities. They tortured, beheaded, and burned those that did not agree with them. They posted the evidence of their evil for the world to see on social media. They enslaved millions under their twisted ideology.
Finally, with the help of coalition air power, the onslaught of ISIS was stopped. In 2015, the Iraqis began to regroup, as a coalition worked to rebuild, retrain and reequip our partners. To date, more than 110,000 Iraqi Security Forces have been trained and equipped by the coalition to defeat ISIS in Iraq.
In late 2015 and throughout 2016, the Iraqi Security Forces went on the counteroffensive, liberating Tikrit, Ramadi, Fallujah, Qayyarah, Sharqat and countless smaller villages. When 18th Airborne Corps arrived last August, the liberation of Mosul was just an idea and colored lines on a map. The nine-month-long liberation battle for Mosul was not an easy task. It was a brutal urban fight. But as I've said before here in this conference, it would have been difficult for any army in the world to include our army.
Not only did the Iraqi Security Forces have to overcome a fanatical enemy fighting in dense urban terrain, but they had to overcome ISIS's use of chemical munitions, explosive-laden drones, suicide vests, armored car bombs, and the use of civilians as human shields.
The Iraqi Security Forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga set the example for all of Iraq. They proved how resilient and powerful they can be. They put their differences aside and worked together toward a common goal.
And now, as you may have heard, in the past few hours the Iraqis have achieved a stunningly swift and decisive victory in the city of Tal Afar, west of Mosul.
Throughout the fight, the -- the ISF did a remarkable job protecting civilians and evacuating them from the city, while the United Nations and the government of Iraq did amazing work handling the 900,000 displaced persons. To date more than a quarter of a million people have already returned to their homes throughout Iraq.
The coalition, united and strong, was there every step of the way to support our partners, but make no mistake about it, this is an Iraqi plan. This is Iraqis liberating Iraqis.
In Syria, the Syrian Democratic Forces, including the Syrian Arab Coalition, liberated Tabqa City and Tabqa Dam in April. And they're now in the third month of operations to defeat ISIS in Raqqa, the global capital of the so-called caliphate.
The fighting is difficult, but they have made much progress and I have no doubt they will succeed.
You have to remember that the Syrian Democratic Forces are not the Iraqi Security Forces. They do not have tanks, helicopters or fighter jets. They are really an irregular light infantry force with a comparative handful of light armored vehicles and heavy weapons, who, with coalition assistance, are fighting well above the weight class. They have been and remain the most effective counter-ISIS fighting force in Syria.
Once the fighting is done in the city, Raqqa will be handed over to the Raqqa Civilian Council and the Raqqa Internal Security Force. These groups of primarily Arab local citizens will provide local governance and security so the people of Raqqa can return to their lives as quickly as possible.
I think what all of this has shown is that our by, with and through strategy works when you have capable partners willing to fight.
Our partners in Iraq and Syria, with coalition help, have made substantial accomplishments in the fight to defeat ISIS. Together, we have liberated approximately 75,000 square kilometers of ISIS-held terrain, and more importantly 5.5 million citizens had been liberated from ISIS captivity.
There have been many sacrifices along the way. In Iraq, all branches of the Iraqi Security Forces have suffered their share of casualties. In Syria, Kurds and Arabs fighting side-by-side have fought and died every day to defeat ISIS, and not just for their fellow citizens in Iraq and Syria, but for those throughout the region and in every nation around the world.
While thousands of ISF and SDF fighters have been seriously wounded and killed, so too have many civilians. The death of civilians weighs heavy on our hearts. We should never seek to deny this or hide the true cost of war.
But I say this with full conviction: The responsibility for civilian casualties in Iraq and Syria lies with ISIS, who have brought misery and death to this region.
Our partners in the coalition have done and will continue to do everything in our power to preserve innocent lives.
I must also recognize the sacrifices of our coalition service members, who sacrificed their lives for this cause, and the sacrifice of their families. There are no words to describe the respect I have for you and the sorrow I have for your loss.
With that said, our fight to defeat ISIS is not over. The coalition is strong, united and we remain committed to our partners to bring a lasting defeat to ISIS in Iraq and Syria; to prevent ISIS from exporting their terror around the world; and to protect our own homelands.
Next week, the Army's 18th Airborne Corps will hand over the coalition reins to Lieutenant General Paul Funk and his 3rd Armored Corps. I am proud of all we have accomplished thus far and I'm confident Lieutenant General Funk and his team will continue to help our partners take the fight to ISIS.
Thanks for this opportunity to talk to you today, and I'll take your questions.
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: Thank you, sir.
First, we'll go to Bob Burns from the Associated Press.
Q: Thank you, General Townsend.
You described the fall of Tal Afar as stunningly swift. I'm wondering, has the apparent acceleration of ISIS's collapse in Iraq translated into accelerating success against ISIS in Syria as well in any way?
GEN. TOWNSEND: So, your question is about, as I understand it, is about has the swift victory in Tal Afar, have we seen that translate to similar gains elsewhere in Iraq and Syria. I don't think that we have. The Iraqi security forces prepared in a very deliberate way, focused way for the battle of Tal Afar. Several things went our way in the battle of Tal Afar.
Tal Afar was largely isolated from the rest of Iraq and Syria for about seven or eight months. Since early in the Mosul fight, Tal Afar was surrounded. There was strife between the Iraqi -- between local ISIS fighters and foreign ISIS fighters. And we saw that playing out.
Also I think the coalition did a lot of shaping fires in Tal Afar; a lot of precision strikes on leaders and special military capabilities. And then finally, and probably most importantly, the Iraqi security forces attacked with a great deal of power on five axes of attack into Tal Afar. And they were able to maintain that same pressure on all axes. And I think this caused the sudden collapse of ISIS there.
While I'd like to say that we would see this elsewhere in Iraq and Syria, we're not really planning for that. We're planning for tough fights ahead. We think that's probably the best way to approach it.
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: Next to Michael Gordon with the New York Times.
Q: Sir, just following up on your last point on the tough fights ahead, looking towards the middle Euphrates River valley, it seems there are two sets of issues there. One is how to de-conflict military operations there with Syrian government forces, Russian air operations, Iranian-backed militias. And also which course that you -- that the United States supports will do the fighting; how to make a force like the SDF, which has a Kurdish element, acceptable to the local population, perhaps by incorporating more Arabs.
Can you please address these two points? Have you worked out de-confliction arrangements with the Russians for the operations in the Middle Euphrates River Valley? And which force will do the fighting there? And how are you going to make that force acceptable for the local population?
GEN. TOWNSEND: Okay. Thanks, Michael.
So, first your question -- you know, you've pointed out that the final stand of ISIS will be in the Middle Euphrates River Valley. Now, that's the area that lies on both sides of the Iraq-Syrian border, from about Deir ez-Zor in Syria down to Rawah in Iraq, over 250 kilometers. All these forces will converge there. If ISIS is making their last stand, you're pointing out that all the forces will converge there and how will we de-conflict all of that.
We'd actually had some practice doing this. You may recall back in February, all the same actors converged around the town called al-Bab, up to the east of Aleppo. And we de-conflicted that successfully. Then you may recall, probably in the May-June timeframe, all the same actors converged again south of Raqqa, in the area of Tabqa -- the city and Tabqa airfield.
We were able to work through that then and those rehearsals, if you will, have allowed us to come up with measures that seem to work.
So we're having a conversation with the Russians. We're trying to de-conflict this in the future. And we have lines that are agreed to that will cover much of the Middle Euphrates River Valley now; not all of it yet, but we'll get to that when the time comes.
So I'm reasonably confident that we'll be able to work through this. Everyone that's converging down there is trying to defeat ISIS as a first priority and we'll use that to our advantage to work through it.
Your second question about how will we ensure that there's a suitable force to go to this area and liberate this area, well, first of all, I'm not sure it's our responsibility to ensure that.
I think what we have is we're supporting Syrians liberating Syria. And our Syrian partners have shown a remarkable facility for finding suitable partners.
In fact, I watched them do this in Manbij, I watched them do this in Tabqa, and now I'm watching them do it for the third time in Raqqa.
And you mentioned a Kurd force, but the Syrian Democratic Forces comprise of about 50,000 fighters, half of whom are Arabs. And what I've watched with this force is that they, first of all, solicit volunteers and recruits from the area to be liberated and they form the leading elements of the force from those people.
So I think that they'll -- they'll do this much the same way they're doing it in Raqqa. They'll recruit people from the Deir ez-Zor province in the Middle Euphrates River Valley, and they'll be part of the campaign. And I'm reasonably confident, based on past history, that they'll find a force -- they'll make a force that's acceptable to the people down there.
And I'll just give you a little vignette we see playing out around Raqqa and Tabqa every day.
It doesn't really matter what that force is comprised of, you know, the ethnic background, the religious background. What we see is we see people fleeing towards the -- our Syrian partners every day. They're fleeing from ISIS towards our Syrian partners. They're fleeing from the Syrian regime towards our Syrian partners, because they know that there's safety there.
So anyway, with that experience, I'm reasonably confident that that force will also find suitable partners to defeat ISIS in the Middle Euphrates River Valley.
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: Next to Idrees Ali from Reuters.
Q: General, when we were in Baghdad last week, with all the briefings and all that we got, the impression that I got was that Tal Afar would be a tough fight. There were about 2,000 ISIS fighters in -- in and around the city.
So, I mean, what happened? What happened with those fighters since it obviously was, sort of, encircled? Where did they -- you know, did you kill all 2,000? Sort of, how was it swifter than -- why was it swifter than you thought?
And then I have another follow-up on Syria.
GEN. TOWNSEND: Yeah, I remember our discussion a week or so ago here in Baghdad.
I think what I said is we estimate there's somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000 fighters in Tal Afar. And quite honestly, our initial battle damage assessment is over a thousand enemy fighters killed or captured already, probably 500 to 700 of them in the neighborhood of Tal Afar City itself.
And then the -- those remaining fighters withdrew from Tal Afar City to the north and they withdrew some 10 or 20 kilometers to some pretty rough country and some small villages to the north of Tal Afar. And in that process, we think we've killed somewhere between 300 and 500.
So somewhere between 1,000 and 1,200 enemy fighters we think that we've killed. The Kurdish Peshmerga have estimated they've killed somewhere between 130 and 170 fighters trying to flee through -- northward and northwest through the Kurdish defensive lines.
So there was a pretty good isolation around Tal Afar. And the Iraqi Security Forces and the coalition went there to annihilate the ISIS forces that were there in Tal Afar and I think we've done that.
I think that -- I think there are probably some still hiding in the very rough country to the north of Tal Afar, but not in large numbers, would be my guess. And I think we've accounted for a lot of them.
Q: And just to follow up on this ISIS convoy going into eastern Syria; I mean, I get that, sort of -- it's within the law of armed conflict to strike, you know, if it's ISIS fighters and not necessarily hit the convoy. But the criticism is that morally, you know, striking convoy with 300 women and children just to, sort of, make a point, because they can obviously go around where you struck, is not the correct way to go about doing this.
If you could, sort of, tell us the rationale and why you decided to, you know, temporarily, sort of, block this convoy with women and children.
GEN. TOWNSEND: Okay.
So, first of all, this is a convoy of ISIS fighters. They -- we believe some of them have their family members with them. These are ISIS fighters that the Syrian regime cut a deal with to move through Syria from their west border -- western border with Lebanon, through Syria and put them off on buses on their eastern border next to Iraq. That's what they're doing.
So we decided to go look for these buses and we found them.
And let me make it clear, we have not struck this convoy at all. No women and children have been harmed on this convoy, although I'd very much like to get at the ISIS fighters on that convoy. We've resisted that.
What we have done is we've seen the Syrian regime bring these ISIS fighters, with their machine guns, which they posted on social media -- pictures of masked terrorists on Greyhound-like buses with their machine guns in their laps. And you can check it on social media and see it for yourself.
So we didn't make a deal with ISIS, and we're going to pursue ISIS wherever we find them. So they stopped on the -- near Abu Kamal, on the eastern -- in the eastern part of Syria and along the border with Iraq, and they waited to link up with ISIS.
And so we watched, and when ISIS came out to link up with them, we started striking ISIS. And again, we haven't struck the convoy, but we have struck every ISIS fighter and/or vehicle that has tried to approach that convoy, and that -- will continue to do that.
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: Next, to Joe Tabet from Al Hurra.
Q: Thank you, Major. General Townsend, thank you for doing this.
My question -- I want to go back to your opening statement. You mentioned many victories over the last two years, from Fallujah, to Mosul, to Shaddadi, Manbij.
My question for you is, what do you think -- how the United States -- what the -- what the United States need to do to safeguard what has been achieved in the last two, three years? What's your vision in regards to the post-counter-ISIS? Do you see a long-term commitment for the United States in both Iraq and Syria?
GEN. TOWNSEND: Okay. So I think -- as I understand your question -- a little hard time hearing it, but I think you ask what does the United States need to do to secure the victory in Iraq and Syria post-conflict.
First of all, we need to focus on defeating ISIS. There are still about 1.5 million, 2 million people under ISIS bondage. There are still more than 25,000 square kilometers held by ISIS -- some major population centers in Iraq and Syria.
And so have to focus first on the defeat of ISIS -- military defeat of ISIS. Then, I think it's less about what the United States must do, but first, it's about what Iraq and Syria must do.
In Iraq, for example, I think part of the rise of ISIS was disenfranchised peoples, most of them Sunnis, who looked at Baghdad and they didn't see their government representing them or their interests or their future.
And I think that's probably the most important thing that the people of Iraq -- the government of Iraq has to do, is it has to reach out, reconcile, bring all Iraqis together and be the government of all Iraqis.
So that's probably the second thing. Beat ISIS, then the Iraqi government has to represent all Iraqis.
In Syria, it's a harder question, and I think that there's probably a lot of diplomacy that has to happen. I think, for Syria, I'm just going to focus on defeating ISIS and let -- give time for the diplomats to work through to find a solution to the way ahead there.
As far as longer-term presence here, I think there is a desire -- I know that there is a desire for that on the part of the Iraqi government and the Iraqi Security Forces. And our government has engaged in conversations with the Iraqi Security Forces, and I'm hopeful that an arrangement will be made to that end in the future.
I think that, you know, we saw what happened -- we all saw what happened in 2011 when we parted ways completely. And personally, I -- my personal view is I don't want to -- I wouldn't want to repeat that. So I think that our governments will work out something that will work for the future.
But I think the main thing is we have to defeat ISIS and Baghdad's got to reach out and put their arms around all Iraqis. I -- my sense is that the Iraqi leaders that I deal with, that's exactly what they want to do.
Q: Question, sir: Do you still see any importance in capturing Baghdadi?
GEN. TOWNSEND: I think you said "any importance" in capturing Baghdadi. So, look, I'd be happy to capture Baghdadi. I don't know who wouldn't. I think I'd be just as equally satisfied just killing him. And if he's alive out there somewhere, we're looking for him every day. I don't think he's dead. We're looking for him every day. When we find him, I think we'll probably just try to kill him first, probably not worth all the trouble to try to capture him. That's my own personal thought on it.
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: Next to Tom Bowman from National Public Radio.
Q: Hey, General, I wonder if you go back to the convoy for a second. You talked about these buses that you're not hitting. And any ISIS vehicles that come up near them, you'll take those out. So are these buses still in the same location? Are they essentially just kind of trapped there?
And talk about this as a, I would guess, reoccurring problem for you. ISIS could continue doing this kind of thing, move out of, let's say, Raqqa or someplace else with their family members or civilians on their vehicles, and you're not going to be able to strike them -- kind of what we saw in Manbij.
GEN. TOWNSEND: Okay. Well, first of all, I'd point out that we did see that in Manbij, but it hasn't always worked out that way for ISIS. So, for example, the example in Fallujah, Iraq. ISIS tried to leave there and we were able to strike their convoys and essentially slaughter ISIS fighters in large numbers.
In Manbij, there was a different outcome. In Tabqa back in April-May timeframe, they tried to execute -- negotiate a withdrawal. We weren't party to that agreement and we struck their withdrawing column to the extent that we could, so trying to dissuade that type of activity.
This is a little bit different. This is not really a breakout. This is sort of a break-in. So they -- they talked their way out of -- with the Syrian regime, out of western Syria. And they've gone now to the east side. And the Syrian regime appears to be quite happy to deliver them right to Abu Kamal on the Iraqi border. I know the government of Iraq doesn't appreciate that much. And we don't appreciate it. And we weren't a party to the deal.
So, what's become of the buses there? They actually started moving back towards the interior of Syria, and so we're just letting them go. If they try to get to the edge of ISIS territory and link up with ISIS there, we'll work hard to disrupt that.
Q: But how? Again, what, crater the roads, prevent them from moving? What will you do?
GEN. TOWNSEND: Well, we have all kinds of ways, and I'd prefer that ISIS find out about that when they make their attempt.
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: Next, to Laurie Mylroie with Kurdistan 24.
Q: Thank you, General.
You were just in Erbil and met with President Barzani. Could you tell us about that meeting?
GEN. TOWNSEND: Yes. I was in Erbil and I met with President Barzani.
Q: What did you -- did you -- could you tell us some about what you discussed with him?
GEN. TOWNSEND: Well -- well, we discussed the war. We discussed the Tal Afar operation. We discussed Mosul and Mosul's security. And we discussed a range of other topics, most of which I'm a partner on, but not the lead for, and so I'll let others talk about those topics.
Q: Are you satisfied with the contribution of the Peshmerga to the war?
GEN. TOWNSEND: (inaudible) -- about the war.
Yes. I think I heard your question. Am I satisfied with the contribution of the Peshmerga towards the war? Yes.
So people probably don't have a good appreciation for this, but I certainly do. The Peshmerga were instrumental in stopping the onslaught of ISIS in 2014 and 2015. Across much of northern Iraq, it was the Kurdish Peshmerga who held the line.
And so they've been holding that line ever since, for three years. And I think people kind of lose sight of that. It seems like the Kurds aren't doing anything -- they're defending still, across hundreds of kilometers of Iraq, in contact with ISIS every day.
I saw them do incredible work for the liberation of Mosul, especially for the initial stages of Mosul. They -- they coordinated a -- very effectively and constructively with the Iraqi security forces. They allow the Iraqi security forces to stage for the attack in Kurdish-held areas.
The Peshmerga then made the initial attacks to advance the FLOT towards Mosul -- the forward line of troops towards Mosul, and allow the Iraqi security forces to close with the city and make their assault into the city -- their breach into the city without loss prior to actually getting to the breach point. These are very key accomplishments.
They also liberated a number of towns and villages around Mosul from ISIS. Since then, they have been containing Tal Afar, for example, and the Hawija pocket for nine months. And now, most recently, in the Battle of Tal Afar, I had mentioned earlier that they've killed somewhere between 130, 170, and with some loss to Peshmerga -- (inaudible) -- out of Tal Afar.
Some of these attacks involved women -- female suicide bombers who killed Peshmerga who were -- who were trying to let the women and children escape, and instead female ISIS suicide bombers exploded themselves and killed the Peshmerga soldiers.
They've held a stalwart defense then north of Tal Afar and have shaped the battlefield there and attrited the escaping enemy to a significant degree.
So, I'm -- I am pretty happy with the contributions of the Peshmerga and there will be more contributions as we look towards Hawija, which is contained to the east entirely by the Kurdish Peshmerga.
Q: Thank you very much, sir.
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: Tony Capaccio with Bloomberg.
Q: Hi, sir.
We have heard in Washington that the White House has decentralized decision-making -- tactical decision-making down to your level and below, more than the Obama administration had. Brett McGurk has laid this out a few times in Washington.
Can you give a couple of practical examples of how this decentralization has helped in your campaign to so-call annihilate ISIS? And then I have a follow-up on a different subject.
GEN. TOWNSEND: Okay. I will say that the current administration has pushed decision-making down into the military chain of command. And I don't know of a commander in our armed forces that doesn't appreciate that. I'll -- I'll prefer not to go into specific examples.
I will say that probably a key result of that is that we don't get second-guessed a lot. Our judgment here on the battlefield in the forward areas is trusted. And we don't get 20 questions with every action that happens on the battlefield and every action that we take.
And again, I think every commander that I know of appreciates being given the authority and responsibility, and then the trust and backing to implement that. So, that's what I'll say.
You had a follow-up question?
Q: On the Expeditionary Targeting Force, we don't hear a lot about that. What impact broadly has that special operations force had on shaping the battlefields in Mosul, Raqqa, Tal Afar? You mentioned precision strikes against leaders in Tal Afar. Were those strikes executed by the Expeditionary Targeting Force?
GEN. TOWNSEND: I won't really talk about the operations of any of our specific units. Suffice it to say, we have a lot of capabilities and we use them. As far as your question about the role of SOF, SOF has been, special operations forces both U.S. and coalition special operations forces, and we have a significant coalition contribution with special operations -- they've been significant.
They have in the earlier days, they were probably the weight of the effort because nations were willing to put special operations troops where they were not willing to put maybe general purpose forces. So, in Iraq, they've been absolutely instrumental in shaping this fight over the last three years. And in specifically targeting enemy key leaders and special military capabilities like the chemical warfare enterprise, their drone enterprise -- those are some examples. External operations plotting and planning are other examples of where the special operations forces contribute greatly.
I'd like to put rest a little bit this -- this thought that SOF are doing all the work over here. With the approach of the Mosul operation, the Iraqi security forces involved, that formation became much too large for SOF to be the only advisers. And so over time, we have committed more and more advisers from the general purpose forces.
And two brigades from the 18th Airborne Corps that I've worked with here, 2nd Brigade of the 101st and 2nd Brigade of the 82nd Airborne, had a very substantial role in the battle of Mosul. In fact, during the battle of Mosul, their -- the general purpose forces' role eclipsed that of SOF, not -- their role didn't eclipse them, but their -- their size of their force in the fight eclipsed that of special operating forces.
Now in Syria, it's still a little bit different. We have added special -- general purpose forces there. But by and large, our Syrian campaign has started in 2014 as a mostly special operations forces endeavor, and it still remains that. However, I was just there yesterday, in fact, and I saw a general purpose force and special operators working together side by side on the battlefield in Syria.
It's still largely, though, SOF-led -- the character of the operation is special operations forces. There's a lot of general purpose forces over there in support, though.
Q: At Tal Afar, the precision strikes against the ISIS leaders, were those executed by SOF forces or Iraqi general purpose?
GEN. TOWNSEND: So, our -- our enterprise for striking high-value individuals or ISIS leaders is very integrated. You'd be hard-pressed to say it's a special operations process or it's a general purpose force process. It's too integrated for that. It's very much blended, our strike enterprise here.
Most of the precision strikes against known ISIS leaders is conducted by the coalition. Although the Iraqis do have some capabilities to do that, and they will identify a key leader on the battlefield, and they will make a precision strike on these leaders.
These are enabling and enhancing capabilities. These are not decisive. What was decisive is tens of thousands of Iraqi security forces attacking on five axes simultaneously into Tal Afar like a steamroller. That's what was decisive.
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: Barbara Starr with CNN.
Q: General Townsend, to go back to Joe's question on Baghdadi, you seemed -- you were definitive. You said you think he's alive. So, you believe he's alive. So, can you elaborate a little bit at the end of your tour there, because you're leaving? What makes you come to the conclusion he's alive? Does that suggest you know where he may be, even if you can't tell us?
And you also seem to be fairly definitive that the orders are, first, to kill; capture if you can, but you'd rather see him killed. So is that the orders your troops are, you know, basically operating under?
GEN. TOWNSEND: Okay, Barbara. Thanks for the question.
I seem to remember my last Pentagon press conference when you were very interested also in Baghdadi's whereabouts and what we were going to do with him then. This is a -- this is apparently a hobby of yours, Barbara.
So, look, I really don't know where he is. I think this is the same answer I gave last time: I really don't.
Do I believe he's alive? Yes. Why? Because I've seen no convincing evidence, intelligence or open source or other -- rumor or otherwise, that he's dead. So, therefore, I believe he's alive.
There are also some indicators in intelligence channels that he's still alive.
Where is he? I don't have a clue. He could be anywhere in the world for all I know.
Here's what I think. I think he's somewhere in Iraq and Syria. I think he's probably somewhere in the Middle Euphrates River Valley.
Remember, I think the secretary of defense said it last week or so, and I said it just a few minutes ago, the last stand of ISIS will be in the Middle Euphrates River Valley. That's where they believe their last sanctuary is. So I think he's probably somewhere down there.
That's just an educated guess made after, you know, doing this for a year and scratching off a whole -- he's not in Mosul, he's not in Tal Afar, I don't think he's in Raqqa anymore. So just kind of reducing the list of possible places where he could be, I kind of conclude he's in the MERV somewhere.
We're looking for him every day.
Q: If I could follow up, so my question, as a reporter to you...
GEN. TOWNSEND: The -- the -- go ahead.
My question as a reporter to you is you have just said you do have intelligence indicators he's alive. So that informs what you said is your guess. You do have reason to believe as a commanding general.
GEN. TOWNSEND: Yes. I said I thought he was alive.
Q: And my question to follow that up, when you say you believe he's likely in the Euphrates -- Middle Euphrates River Valley, you -- you had said to Michael Gordon that you were working on de-confliction with the Russians in advance there, if I understood you correctly. Could you expand a little bit?
When you say de-confliction, we have mostly understood that to mean air operations in the near term across Syria sort of on the day-to-day or an operational basis. Is this now a different type of de-confliction discussion you're having with the Russians in advance? Are you, sort of, dividing up the areas in -- in the Middle Euphrates River Valley where you're going to operate?
It seems a bit different, but perhaps I'm misunderstanding there.
GEN. TOWNSEND: Okay.
So, the -- prior to about February, the de-confliction that we were doing with the Russians was done exclusively by our air force -- air forces, central air forces. And they were talking to the Russians to de-conflict air operations.
Starting with the convergence of the FLOTs that I mentioned earlier around al-Bab in February, we saw, suddenly, the need for a ground component for that.
We started thinking about how to go about doing that and we started looking to get the resources. We had to have some special telephone lines and we had to find the right interpreters. We kept working on that, kind of, slowly.
This became a real priority in the May timeframe with the convergence of these forces, again, south of Tabqa, as I previously mentioned.
It was there, in the convergence of forces around Tabqa, where we understood this -- there is definitely a ground component to this de-confliction. And if we want to avoid inadvertent clashes, linking up on the battlefield with another friendly element -- known friendly element that you actually have a link-up plan with is a very dangerous operation, well -- well-known in our military, that it's difficult to link up with someone while in contact with the enemy, and especially in the dark.
So it gets even tougher when you have a force that may be something other than friendly -- not necessarily an adversary, but something other than friendly -- and you don't have great communications with them and you don't have an agreed-upon plan. Well, then -- and then you add the enemy there, and it becomes fraught with friction.
So we knew we had to have this de-confliction system, and we have now acquired that, at the CJTF headquarters. So now there's two nodes for de-confliction with the Russians. The Air Force -- the air component has their node, and we now have a node here at the CJTF headquarters, so we can do that.
I think that this becomes -- this -- it becomes almost a daily fact of life. In fact, we probably talked to the Russians, between the air component and my headquarters, we talk to the Russians -- somebody's talking to the Russians multiple times a day to de-conflict our operations.
So I think that's -- we've got the system in place we need to do it. And it's just a fact of life, as we operate in greater proximity to each other in the Middle Euphrates River Valley.
Q: Can I just make sure I understand? Have you already established your de-confliction zones in the ERV? Or is that still to come? Your de-confliction with the Russians -- do you -- have you divided it up with them?
GEN. TOWNSEND: Well -- so remember that I said we've established some measures south of Raqqa. And those measures extend to the east of Raqqa. And since about the middle of June, second week of June, they've held, and we haven't had friction.
They've observed the measures we put in place, and we've observed the measures and our partners have observed the measures we put in place. And the discussions every day, really, are just to make sure that everybody knows what everybody's doing and not to trip on each other, really, and that the measures are still in place and we're all observing them. That's kind of how the conversations go.
There -- I told you that we've already established the measures that are in place that go down into the MERV a ways. I won't be any more specific than that. And there'll be other discussions. When the time comes, we'll work out other measures in the future that will cover the entire area that needs to be covered.
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: Now, to Corey Dickstein, with Stars and Stripes.
Q: Thanks for doing this, sir.
I wanted to ask -- on the Iraqi Security Forces, they've obviously improved immensely in the last couple of years, since ISIS overran them in 2014. But that -- in 2014, they were largely a -- you know, a U.S.-trained and equipped force.
So my question is, what is different, as, you know, we're nearing the end of ISIS in Iraq, what's different about the Iraqi Security Forces today than it was when we left in 2011? And what do they need to continue to improve on to ensure ISIS or a similar group doesn't, you know, reclaim territory somewhere in the country in the -- in the future?
GEN. TOWNSEND: Okay. So your question's about -- you know, the Iraqi Security Forces and what's different now than about them in 2014. I think you have to go back to 2011, when the coalition and the Iraqis parted ways.
I think what I can gather from looking at the period from 2011 to 2014 or 2013 is that the Iraqi Security Forces largely stopped training -- I'm not really sure what the mechanism of that -- the reason behind that was, but they did very little training after 2011.
And there was a significant change-out -- turbulence -- personnel turbulence, particularly in their leadership ranks. And I think the previous Iraqi government was more interested in putting leaders into a position who were of like mind than, maybe, leaders who would, by merit, protect the nation.
So then, we saw, you know, ISIS arrive on the scene. And you see some dynamics there, but at the time, ISIS, like a juggernaut, kind of gained steam as they rolled across Syria and into Iraq. And I think, in the minds of the Iraqis, they were ten feet tall.
We know that Mosul fell to probably less than a thousand ISIS fighters. We know that Ramadi was largely given up to ISIS. And the army was battered and bruised and nearly defeated on the outskirts of Baghdad in the fall of 2014. So what changed?
Well, first of all, the coalition arrived, so they had some partners to help them. And it's always, you know, better to fight your enemies with the help of others. And so the coalition arrived and started helping.
We also started -- we arrived and started training and -- training them again. And there's -- you know, professional armies -- when they're not fighting, they're training to fight. And if they're doing something other than training to fight, they're not going to be a successful or a victorious army.
I think, also, the government of Iraq also realized that they needed leaders who can get the job done, and they started reappointing leaders to key positions that would be able to command in battle successfully.
So that rebuilding process went on in 2014 and 2015, and then, in late 2015, the Iraqi Security Forces went on the attack again. And they haven't lost ground since. Basically, they've been taking ground back ever since, and ISIS has not gained new ground in that timeframe, and you can see it.
And then I think there's another dynamic here that happens. As an army wins battles, its confidence grows, and I think that they're at a place right now where, after the victory in Mosul -- I -- they fought for nine continuous months in Mosul. That's a remarkable feat for any army. And they've emerged from that stronger, battle-hardened.
They're trained -- they went into it trained, they've emerged from it battle-hardened. Their leaders have learned a lot. Their soldiers have learned a lot. And they have a level of confidence, now, that I saw play our in the Battle of Tal Afar. I don't think they're overconfident. They're not there, and that's a danger. But they're -- they're a battle-hardened and confident security force.
And there's still work to be done. There's more training to be done, and we'll do our after-action review of Tal Afar. And what I saw them do is I saw them apply the lessons of Mosul to Tal Afar, and we're going to help them apply the lessons of Tal Afar and Mosul to their next fight.
So I think that's the big difference, really: Good leadership, by necessity; and hard training; and then some battlefield experience.
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: Next, to Ryan Browne, CNN.
Q: Hello, General. Thank you for doing this.
I just want to follow up on the reports of clashes in the area around Manbij between coalition forces and Turkish-backed rebels. Are you confident that you've been able to communicate with Turkey -- your counterparts in Turkey to get them to stop their proxies from doing that kind of thing? Or are you changing or adjusting, kind of, the coalition presence there to prevent those kind of clashes in the future?
GEN. TOWNSEND: Okay. So we actually haven't had these clashes that you're referring to now in probably -- I think, about 10 days or so. And what we were seeing about two weeks ago were some of the Free Syrian Army opposition -- Syrian opposition fighters in the area controlled by the Turk military were firing upon the Manbij area there, where there are some U.S. forces -- coalition forces there.
We identified this to our Turkish allies -- our NATO allies, Turkey, and they have, I think, taken the appropriate measures to get that under control.
Turkey is a member of the coalition. They've been a valuable member -- valuable partner in the fight against ISIS in -- particularly in northern Syria, where they liberated, with Syrian partner forces, a significant chunk of northern Syria, to include the iconic capital of the ISIS caliphate, Dabiq, and the city of Al-Bab, just to mention a few places.
So Turkey's done great work with the coalition, and I think that they've gotten that under control, and I think we had some opposition units -- elements there on their side that were kind of acting on their own, and I believe it's gotten -- it's been put under control now, and we -- like I said, it's been quiet now for going on, I think, about 10 days, maybe a little longer.
Q: Thank you.
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: Next, to Jennifer Griffin from Fox News.
Q: Hi, General Townsend.
Your time in Iraq has overlapped two administrations in the fight against ISIS. Can you tell us what the biggest difference in the last six months, in terms of being a commanding general and the way the ISIS fight was pursued -- how different it is from the prior administration? What is the biggest difference for you as a commander?
GEN. TOWNSEND: Well, I think that some of the differences -- look, both administrations, as would any U.S. administration -- both administrations were, I think, all-in on defeating ISIS in this region. That's why this CJTF was stood up three years ago.
So I think that is common to both, and -- and macro, I think, the approach has been very similar. There are some specific instances which I kind of talked about with an earlier -- an answer to an earlier question, that I think the current administration has empowered the chain of command to make more decisions on their own, and has then given top cover to the chain of command, I think, for the decisions that are being made. And I think that's important.
And that has -- just that alone has effects that reverberate throughout a military organization when they feel like they've been given the -- the authority and the trust to act and act aggressively. Then commanders now don't -- aren't constantly calling back to higher headquarters asking for permission, but they're free to act. And I think that's probably very empowering for any commander in our armed forces.
Q: Thank you.
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: Now to Paul Handley, Agence France-Presse.
Q: General, when we were in Erbil last week, an official of the Peshmerga suggested that they had hoped you would go to Hawija ahead of Tal Afar. And he said that after Tal Afar, that should be next.
Is that on the menu for the -- for the next actions? And are the ISF ready? Or do they need a break before they go there?
And then I have a separate follow-up.
GEN. TOWNSEND: The Iraqi security forces will be ready for the next operation. And I'd prefer not to discuss the sequence of our operations here in this open source, open media forum here. ISIS is probably watching as well, and they'd probably appreciate me telling you where our next operation will be. So I'll just -- I'll take a pass on that one. Thank you.
What's your follow-up?
Q: On that, the Peshmerga official, although he was speaking through an interpreter, seemed a little bit anxious to get going there. They seemed maybe even peeved that it hadn't gone there yet.
GEN. TOWNSEND: I'm sorry. I'm not following your -- I didn't get that at all. Something about an interpreter, hadn't gone there yet. I'm sorry. I didn't understand what you said.
Q: The Peshmerga official was speaking through an interpreter. So, we couldn't, you know, be sure of his -- his feelings. But he -- they -- he sounded a little bit peeved that there wasn't a move yet on -- on Hawija.
GEN. TOWNSEND: Okay. So, there's a guy who's talking through an interpreter, and we're not really sure what he said. And he seemed peeved. And you want me to comment on that?
Like I said, I'll pass. And what's your follow-up question?
Q: Okay. On the buses with the ISIS fighters, are those buses moving now? Where are they in Syria? And why didn't you just block their way and, say, starve them out?
GEN. TOWNSEND: Okay. I think you asked me where -- I'm sorry; probably not coming in real clear, but I think you asked me where ISIS fighters are in Syria and then something about "starve them out." So, I'll give it -- I'll try to answer your question best as I understand it.
Where are the ISIS fighters in Syria? Right now, they're in eastern Syria. The fighters that I'm most concerned with go from Raqqa, sort of north-central Syria, and they down the Euphrates River valley to the southeast, to Abu Kamal.
And then they extend southward into the Hamad Desert area. And they extend northward up towards a town called Shaddadi, and there's a river there called the Khabur River. And they generally lay in that area along the Euphrates River valley and the Khabur River valley in this area we call the middle Euphrates River valley. And they extend into western Anbar in Iraq.
So, that's where ISIS is. And that's where our campaign is focused on driving into that middle Euphrates River valley, where, and if you recall, I mentioned, and the secretary of defense mentioned about a week ago, that's where we envision their last stand will be made.
Then as far as your concern -- your question about starving them out. I didn't quite get that, but this is a huge, huge area. And there is significant agriculture that goes on in this area -- livestock being raised; crops being grown. So when they're in a small city, you can have some ability to starve them out, and that's when we try to -- what we do is we isolate these towns. And in fact, Tal Afar, there were significant food shortages in Tal Afar by the time the attack unfolded on Tal Afar.
But in the middle Euphrates River valley, they can't really be -- you can't really just contain the whole Euphrates River valley and starve them out. It's too big. It's too complex. It's too diverse and they can grow crops and raise livestock in there.
I probably didn't understand your question correctly, so if I didn't, ask it again.
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: Sir, this is Major Rankine-Galloway from Public Affairs.
The question was: What is the current position of the buses in question in Syria? And what efforts have you made -- have you made an effort to starve them out? And have you made an effort to communicate with the people on those buses?
GEN. TOWNSEND: Oh, okay. So, last -- when I walked into this conference about an hour ago, the buses were on the move. They had turned and had driven back into regime-held areas. When we first started this event yesterday, they were just on the boundary of where ISIS and the forward line of troops where ISIS and the regime-held areas meet.
And they were just on the regime side of that boundary. And they were waiting for transportation to come out of Abu Kamal -- ISIS transportation -- and pick them up and take them into Abu Kamal on the Iraqi border. It was our judgment that that was a situation we couldn't allow to unfold without trying to disrupt it, which we did successfully.
Those buses have since turned and gone back into the interior of Syria. I'm not sure we still -- within the last hour, I don't know if we still have a bead on them and where they are. We have not -- we've watched the regime come -- someone has come and resupplied the buses with food and water. We've observed that. We didn't try to interfere with that.
So we're able to differentiate between ISIS approaching the buses and regime -- pro-regime elements approaching the buses. Mostly by where the vehicles that are approaching and the people that are approaching come from, we're able to figure out who's who.
So we have not tried to interfere with all approaches to the buses. And the pro-regime forces have done that and resupplied them. I would imagine life is getting kind of hard on those buses after two and a half days or more largely cooped up in those buses, driving around in the desert.
We have not tried to communicate with them. That's ISIS on those buses. We don't communicate with ISIS. We have communicated with the Russians, and I think that the Russians are basically telling us that that's not their activity, and they're not responsible for that.
So we're striking -- let me make it clear. We haven't tried to strike the buses. We're not in charge of what's going on in those buses. We're not talking to the buses.
But what we are doing is we're watching. And when we see ISIS come out of their holes and make themselves a target, we take advantage of that.
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: We are just over an hour, so, General, thank you very much. Do you have any closing words for the group?
GEN. TOWNSEND: Yeah. Thanks -- thanks for your questions.
I think this is probably the fifth time, I think, over the course of a year, that I've addressed this forum. I think it's probably the third or fourth time that I've addressed Barbara Starr's question about where's Baghdadi. Barbara, I look forward to our next time that we can chat about Baghdadi's whereabouts.
I'll just finish with this: This has been a remarkable year, a challenging year, a rewarding year as well. Challenging because I think that, as I mentioned in my opening statement, ISIS is an evil entity like I have never encountered before, like the world -- thankfully, the world rarely sees evil like ISIS.
And so we're engaged on this campaign to defeat ISIS, and I'm convicted about the campaign. I'm a believer in the campaign and be -- would be quite happy to stay involved in this fight.
So I think that it's been challenging because it's very difficult, and because, some of the questions that you all ask, you -- you highlighted some of these difficulties, you know?
You've got an Iraqi government, you've got a Syrian civil war going on, you've got all these actors -- Russians and Iranians and Lebanese Hezbollah and -- you name it, lots of actors there -- religions and sects and ethnic groups. It's really challenging.
It's been very rewarding, at the same time, to watch our partner forces liberate their lands and their people from ISIS. It's been -- it's been rewarding to see the turnaround that -- one of you asked me about, earlier, the Iraqi security forces, this remarkable transformation of the Iraqi security forces into one of the most capable security forces, I think, in the Middle East right now.
So that's been very rewarding, to watch that, and also to see the capital of ISIS in Mosul liberated from their clutches, and to see the global capital of ISIS in Raqqa more than half liberated and under assault by our Syrian partners there. So it's been very rewarding, as well.
And I'll just finish by saying that the world should know that this campaign is not close to being finished. There's very hard work ahead to do. There's hard fighting and sacrifice ahead.
But this is right for these two countries. This work is right for this region, and this right is -- this work is right for our homelands, the security of all the nations of the coalition. That's why we've got to stay on this.
And I'd just ask that all the members of the coalition stay -- again, stay strong and united as we continue this fight against this evil scourge that is ISIS.
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: Sir, all of us at the Pentagon wish you and your headquarters a safe return home. Thank you very much.