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Department of Defense Background Briefing via teleconference by an Official from U.S. Central Command

Feb. 19, 2015
Official from U.S. Central Command

This transcript has been edited.

MODERATOR: Now, moving to background attribution, you can record this backgrounder for note-taking purposes, but not for broadcast. Attribution for this backgrounder will be to a U.S. Central Command [CENTCOM] official.

The Central Command official will have a few opening remarks, and then we'll open the floor to questions. I'll call on you and ask that you state your name and outlet so our Central Command official knows who he is talking to.

With that, sir, go ahead.

CENTCOM OFFICIAL: OK. Well, thanks -- (inaudible) -- for that, and appreciate everybody in the room there for coming together and doing this.

As -- (inaudible) -- said, I'm gonna provide just a kind of a status of the campaign plan, where we're at, a couple of tidbits in terms of our assessment, and then I'll open it up for whatever questions that you might have.

So I'll just start off by in our assessment here at CENTCOM is that the military campaign, the military portion of the campaign, remains on track. Our mission has not changed in terms of the degradation, dismantle and eventual defeat of ISIL. It remains true to form. And it is generally unfolding as we had planned.

We initially wanted to halt the advance. We wanted to then begin building partner capacity. We wanted to integrate our air campaign against ISIL in conjunction if ISF and soon to be the new Syrian force in Syria. We wanted to begin to train the Syrian opposition, which is rapidly coming on line, and will become a reality here very soon. We wanted to strengthen our partners in their borders to help in the isolation and the containment of ISIL as it moves back and forth. We wanted to begin to degrade his capability, and I'll talk a little bit more about that in terms of the effects that we have had.

But, most importantly, that this is gonna take time. The degrade phase alone we knew would be a long period of time.

But in our assessment, as we get to the actual aggregate effect on the enemy, we believe that we may even be slightly ahead in the campaign.

What do I mean by that? Militarily, ISIL is in decline. And as you look at what we call centers of gravity, you could look at it as the three pillars, which is his ability to operate through the conventional, unconventional, and as a hybrid threat. His statecraft is the second element of that. And then the third being his ability through his messaging and media campaign to influence the masses.

The first two of those, it is our assessment that he is in decline from a military perspective. He can no longer operate as -- across those spectrums that I just talked about. His ability to govern is very, very limited. And that is actually one of the tenets of what they want to be able to accomplish long term.

I will kind of up front talk, because you will probably question based on the recent events in Libya, expansion of Pakistan, Afghanistan -- (inaudible) -- by ABM in Egypt, Lebanon and other places that, you know, there may be the perception out there that his expansion is actually occurring.

What I would offer is that those organizations in those locations have existed for some time. What ISIL and Daesh provided is maybe not necessarily a new capability, but leadership and inspiration. The core capability, though, has been in existence for some time.

But the aggregate effect, a couple of tidbits for you here. It is our assessment, without getting into the actual numbers of BDA [battle damage assessment] and that sort of thing, but if you think of a U.S. Army division, as I've done a couple of these, I used half-a-division's worth of combat power. It is our assessment that it's nearing three-quarters of a division-worth of combat power when you look at the people, the equipment, the infrastructure, the financing that has been taken off the battlefield -- and I'm describing ISIL in this particular case -- that is no longer there and available to them.

He has a very difficult time seizing and holding additional terrain beyond what he has right now. In fact, in Iraq, he's losing ground every single day. Now, you may ask: Well, what about Baghdadi that happened the other day?

In the operational sense, he's in the defense, but that does not mean that he cannot conduct limited and/or isolated offensive operations. If you were to take a U.S. division and say that in the aggregate it was in a defense, that is not to say that companies within that division wouldn't be conducting offensive operations. I think you have the same kind of context here.

So in the aggregate, he is in the defense. He is in decline, but that does not, because of his freedom of movement, still lack clear border in the safe havens that he -- he has in Syria, and his ability to migrate back and forth still gives him that micro-offensive capability.

But he is in a zero-sum game kind of environment. If he, for example, were to decide to put 1,000 new fighters back up into Khobani, that means that he would not be doing something somewhere else. So even though we are not physically in Syria, he's having to make decisions every day on what he can and cannot do. He's in the land of "ors" versus "ands" now.

In total, our effects are outpacing his ability to regenerate. And I think that's a critical point.

And how has this kind of taken place? It's largely because he's fighting what we call a three-dimensional fight. He is fighting the Iraqi security forces on the ground. He's having to contend with our air campaign. And he's having to contend with the Syrian regime.

So a little bit about Iraq and Syria in terms of a quick update. The BPC [building partner capacity] sites, all five of them are up and running and working; close to 3,200 that are physically in training right now, nearing 2,000 have graduated through those various sites. The Mosul planning continues. The isolation in the shaping that is all going into the Mosul operation continues.

The equipping that's associated with those training sites is -- is not free of challenges, but it is generally working on pace. As an example, it is our estimate that the amount of equipment that we have put between coalition contributions and U.S. contributions, in excess of about six brigades' worth of equipment. And so it is generally keeping pace with those training sites and the effort to get ready for Mosul.

The air campaign has had great effects. And I talked a little bit about that earlier, but we're closing in on 2,500 strikes. The balance between Iraq and Syria still remains about a 50-50 blend. And so that pressure that maintains on the enemy is still having a great effect on him.

In Syria, the Syria T&E [train and equip] component that I'm sure you'll have questions on later will be -- (inaudible) -- but one component of what will eventually achieve the results we're looking for inside of Syria. But the CJIATF [Combined Joint Interagency Task Force], it is up and running underneath Major General Mike Nagata, as many of you know. The four sites are coming online, specifically the site in [editid], a turnkey facility is ready to go. We're working through some final technical agreements with them that we anticipate being signed any day, if it has not already been signed.

The site in Turkey is also nearly a turnkey facility, and that technical agreement with Turkey was actually just signed today. Saudi Arabia's site will take somewhere between 30 and 90 days to fully bring online. So it will come -- come into the picture shortly after [edited] and Turkey are there.

And then Qatar has also offered a site, but that one's going to take probably six to nine months to bring is up and get it fully online.

The air operations in Syria continue, as I described earlier. And like I said, even though we are physically not there, the effects that we're having on ISIL inside Syria is creating a dilemma for him.

So by way of intro, I'll pause there and start with questions that you might have.

Q: (inaudible), it's Lita Baldor with the Associated Press.

You said a couple of things I just wanted to get a little bit more clarity on. You -- first, your assessment of ISIL in Iraq and Syria. Can you give us your latest idea of about how much ground ISIL holds in -- in Iraq and in Syria? And then more specifically on Iraq, how close do you think you are to a Mosul operation? And how -- what do you think the U.S. is going to have to provide militarily in that? Will -- are we getting closer to a sort of a definitive decision on JTACs [joint terminal attack controller]?

CENTCOM OFFICIAL: The -- the first question on how much territory do they own now is a really -- and I think if you asked 20 different intel folks they'd probably give you 20 different answers. So, I would -- I would be hard-pressed to speculate on how much they actually control.

What I can say inside of Iraq is our estimate is somewhere between 700 and 800 kilometers is what -- square kilometers is what Iraqi security forces have -- have taken back from what ISIL had in the beginning of this thing.

In terms of the Mosul operation, we are still projecting that the shaping for Mosul and the isolation of Mosul is going on now. The preparation for the forces that will participate in Mosul is ongoing right now. And the mark on the wall that we are still shooting for is the April-May timeframe.

There are still a lot of things that need to come together. And as we dialogue with our Iraqi counterparts, we want them to go in that timeframe, because as you get into Ramadan and the summer and the heat, it becomes problematic if it goes much later than that. But by the same token, if they're not ready, if the conditions are not set, if all the equipment that they need is not physically there and they are trained to a degree in which they will be successful, we have not closed the door on continuing to slide that to the right.

And so although we would like it to occur in the April-May timeframe, that -- that decision will still have to be one that we'll have to contend with in the future.

Then your third question, I missed that. If you wanted to repeat that, please?

Q: Just what militarily do you think the U.S. is going to have to provide? Do you know yet what the U.S. would have to provide militarily to assist the Iraqis in a Mosul operation? And have you made a decision on JTACs?

CENTCOM OFFICIAL: Yeah, the first part of that question, what we will offer and provide is the full range of military options that we've given them and continue to give them every -- every day, from the equipping and the training that we're doing right now, to the logistical support that we help them with; the air support, the intel and the ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance].

I mean, that full range and complement that we've been doing now that has proved very, very successful. We have the ability to plan, rehearse side by side, and then execute; have deemed successful. Of the 20 named operations that we have participated with them have largely been successful.

So that full range is out there. But to your very specific question on the JTACs, it's -- what General Dempsey, General Austin, the SECDEF [secretary of defense], even the previous SECDEF have all said is they have not closed the door on that. Obviously, the decision, if we stick to an April-May timeframe, will have to happen before then.

But we are looking at all the things that are out there, i.e. what is the final enemy disposition in Mosul?; How precise will the fires need to be in relationship to the forward line of troops?; Are we comfortable with what we're providing now in terms of type two control for those JTACs and those types of things?

All those things will have to be considered in the final analysis, and then ultimately they will go to the president with those things, and he will make that decision. But I don't have a specific date for you.

Q: Thank you.

Q: -- (inaudible), Jim Miklaszewski with NBC.

Can you tell us at this point how combat-capable Iraqi security forces are? And the president has indicated he'd be willing to -- to approve the use of -- limited use of ground forces for forward air control and special operations forces; for rescue or perhaps to take out leadership targets. Do you envision that anytime soon? Is that what you think will ultimately be necessary?

CENTCOM OFFICIAL: Thanks, Jim.

As I just described, I mean, all those things are still on the table. The ultimate timing of that decision has to happen before Mosul kicks off. But when the specific date is, is unknown. But the full range of support that we have given them to date will be -- that's -- that's kind of the baseline. It's a matter of whether we take it one level higher, and we actually accompany with SOF and JTAC teams that can provide just a little bit more precise fires.

And if the decision were made, it would be because we determined that the accuracy in relationship to the friendly, to the enemy is needed to get just a little bit more accurate. And if you think about the accuracy rate thus far, it's been pretty phenomenal. So that's the part that all those decision-makers are weighing, to include the president.

CENTCOM OFFICIAL: So I don't know if that fully answered your question, Jim, but that -- that's what I provide.

Q: I -- I understand you can't talk about timetables, but going back to my first question about the combat capability of Iraqi forces, are they -- are they really up to the task?

CENTCOM OFFICIAL: I think you have to put this into the context of time, Jim, and think back to where they were in June and where they are today.

And as I said earlier, 20 named operations, most of those, very, very successful. Have they had some setbacks? Absolutely. But they -- as they continue to work with us and we have a bigger and bigger hand in the training and the equipping and providing the resources necessary for them to be successful, they are getting better every single day.

And for Mosul specifically, although we want to maintain that April-May timeframe, we are also cognizant if those conditions are set, if we do not believe that the Iraqi security forces are ready to conduct that and be successful, then -- then we'll have to relook the timetable for that.

Q: (inaudible) -- Julian Barnes, Wall Street Journal.

Have the Iraqis identified forces that would participate in the Mosul operation, and has training for those forces begun with U.S. trainers?

And I wonder if you could talk just a little bit more about what's happening around the Al Asad base and why you don't think the -- taking the town Baghdadi is of strategic significance and -- and put that activity in perspective for us.

CENTCOM OFFICIAL: Julian, the question of numbers of forces, I will -- I'm a bit reticent to give you specific unit designations, but what they have identified are the units that will participate in the Mosul operation, and I will try to very clearly articulate what those are.

What we know as of right now is there -- in the attack force, there will be five Iraqi army brigades, there will be three smaller brigades that will comprise a reserve force, there will be three Pesh brigades that will help contain from the north and isolate from the west, and then there will be what we're calling a Mosul fighting force, which will be compromised of largely police and tribal that are being put together right now of mostly former Mosul police, and then finally, a brigade equivalent of CTS forces.

So those are -- that's the large composition of what will participate.

To answer the second part of that question, the intent of General Austin and the leadership of Iraq is that each one of those that I just described, minus the CTS and the Mosul fighting force and some reserve, but the five Iraqi army brigades will all go through our training sites before we commence the operation on Mosul, the main attack force.

The units that are physically in training right now that I talked about earlier, the 3,200, those units, as they come out of training, will replace the five brigades as part of the attack force. They will relieve them in place.

Those five brigades will then come into our training sites and go through the training, ensure that they've got the adequate equipment they need, and then we will start to posture them and put them into the necessary positions they -- they need to be to actually execute the -- the operation.

In terms of Al Asad, that is one of the -- the building partner capacity sites in which some of those forces are going through right now. And some of those five brigades I identified, they will also go through that training site.

In terms of Baghdadi, any -- any loss is -- is tragic, but I wouldn't say it's necessarily strategic.

And so going back to the illustration of -- in the aggregate, ISIL is in the defense, but they may have small tactical victories that -- that have setbacks. But we're -- we're confident that as this force generation and success continues to move, it will grow on itself, and those will eventually be retaken.

Thanks, Julian.

Q: Thanks, (inaudible). Missy Ryan from the Washington Post.

Just one quick -- quick clarification. Is there anything else further you can say about the deal that you mentioned with Turkey that was signed today other than allowing the U.S. to use the training facility? Is there any Turkish -- Turkish participation? What is their role, and what are they doing?

And then my question is regarding the militia role that you're seeing on the ground in -- in Iraq. Can you tell us how that role is evolving and what -- how you expect it to -- to shape the upcoming operations, especially as the militias appear to push into areas where they haven't been previously, like Ninawa and Anbar?

Thank you.

CENTCOM OFFICIAL: Yeah, the -- the Turkey T&E technical agreement that I described yes, it was exactly for that. It was just for the train-and-equip mission that will take place there.

And what -- Turkey has been a tremendous partner in this effort, actually. And as -- as an example, when we went in -- I don't want to describe the exact site, but the site that they have offered is a brand-new facility. It is one that we would be proud to -- to call our own.

It did have a few force protection measures they needed to improve, i.e. some fencing around the barracks and some cameras and -- but all the things that we identified that were shortfalls, they have aggressively, even before this technical agreement was signed of their own accord, gone in and repaired or done the necessary improvements to get that site ready and to ensure that it's -- that it's ready to receive the -- the trainees once they come.

But the agreement itself only agreed to that particular site in the T&E mission.

In terms of participation, they actually have demanded that it be a one-for-one, and so – so the -- of number of U.S. trainers versus Turkish trainers will be equal, and so they've been very generous and want to actually be a clear partner in this effort to -- for the T&E mission.

Q: Then the militias was the second question.

CENTCOM OFFICIAL: Militias, we -- we are clear with -- with the government of Iraq every time this comes up, is that we -- we know that militias historically, within Iraq, have always been a part of a conflict.

So they have to be accounted for, and so they have to be now brought into the official security apparatus, and it's a -- it's a multi-phase process.

As those militias are identified, they first are -- are vetted, then they're sworn in, and then they have to receive training, and then they're actually mated with a -- an actual Iraqi security force unit before they can participate in -- in operations.

Have there been deviations from that? Are we concerned? Absolutely. But we make it a point with the leadership in Iraq that they have to resolve this over the -- over the long term.

We account for and we're (inaudible) -- in those areas where militias might be operating outside the bounds of what I just described, we absolutely take the necessary measures to ensure that our forces are protected.

Q: Thank you.

Q: David Martin with CBS.

I'd like to go back on this Mosul attack force to make sure I understand it.

So the 3,200 that are now in training are shortly to complete their training, and they will replace five brigades that will then go into training, and those five brigades will become the attack force?

CENTCOM OFFICIAL: That is correct, David.

Q: So we're talking about an attack force -- a five-army brigade that equals 3,200 troops?

CENTCOM OFFICIAL: No. I mean, the -- because the units that they're going replace are largely doing checkpoint operations and static defense, the numbers will not match one for one. But the units that we bring -- those existing brigades, we anticipate they'll be times five in about the -- in about the 2,000-per range.

In total, we have said from the beginning, we think it's going to take about 12 brigade equivalents to execute the Mosul operation, and we still kind of stand to that.

And when you add up all of what I described earlier, that's about -- you know, it's not an exact one-for-one math but equivalent. That's about what it comes out to be when you do the five and the four and the three and the two.

Q: So when -- if -- if the -- the attempt to retake Mosul happens on schedule, then the April-May timeframe, it would sound like some of those brigades will still be in training, some of those 12 brigades.

You're not going to have all 12 brigades ready to go by April-May, are you?

CENTCOM OFFICIAL: The ones we are focused on that absolutely must go through the -- the training are the five for the attack.

The CTS, because of their relationship with their SOF [special operations force] partners, are in a much better condition. They are -- even though they're engaged in operations, they train with our SOF forces now in various locations.

The Mosul fighting force, there's another element of SOF that is -- is working a train-the-trainer program for that particular element. They have taken elements of the ISOF and former SWAT elements, they have gone through and -- and built a cadre about 100-plus of them that will then help them bring this -- this Mosul fighting force online and ready to come in and -- and be whole force.

They do not, because they're going to be the whole force on the back side, don't have to necessarily be ready on 1 April. They just have to be ready as the -- the Mosul clearing operation concludes.

The Pesh brigades up north, they have frequent contact with us, but they will, other than the tangential training that -- that is ongoing with the advisers that are out there, won't go through the official BPC sites. But the five attack force brigades will absolutely go through.

Now, will the -- the POI [program of instruction] be modified down from what we're doing now to four to six weeks to three to four to -- to ensure that the timing works? We may have to -- to relook that. But they will all – those five attack brigades will have to go through the -- the training.

Q: (inaudible) -- Jamie McIntyre from Al Jazeera America.

Could you just clarify how many troops we're talking about with these brigade equivalents and all the things you're -- we're trying to convert this into something we can -- our -- our viewers might understand.

CENTCOM OFFICIAL: The force that we've identified, we think it's going to take in the range between 20,000 and 25,000.

MODERATOR: Alright, we got time for one more, Luis.

Q: (inaudible) -- it's Luis Martinez with ABC News.

You spoke earlier about how you said that the plans seem to be ahead of schedule. Is that in both Syria and Iraq, or is the situation in Syria outpacing what you thought?

And also, I'm struck by the fact that you're telegraphing a timeframe as well as size of forces. What -- what's your intent with that?

CENTCOM OFFICIAL: Just to describe the -- the level of detail that the Iraqi security forces are doing and the level of commitment that they have to this and the significance of this upcoming operation, I -- I think that's what -- what we're trying to -- to -- because they are absolutely committed to this.

There're a lot of pieces that have to come together. I mean, we want to make sure that conditions are right.

But they have -- this is their plan, they are bought into it, they are moving forward as if they will execute in the timeframe that I -- I just described.

In terms of the -- the larger plan, I would just remind that -- that the degrade phase, in accordance with the U.S. plan, is a multi-year plan. And so if you take it in that context in the degradation that we have applied to ISIL in -- in total, where we thought we would be today -- I mean, it's almost double in seven, eight months what they have lost compared to 14 years in Iraq and Afghanistan for U.S. in total. So, there is no organization on the world -- in the world that can suffer those kinds of casualties and not have a tremendous impact on their ability to achieve their long-term aims.

Hello? Did we lose you? (Laughter.)

MODERATOR: Do you have time for one more, or we --

Q: Could you take one more, sir?

CENTCOM OFFICIAL: Yeah, one more.

(UNKNOWN): Joe.

Q: Sir, this is Joe Tabett with Alhurra Channel. I have a couple questions. First, in regards to the Sunni tribes in Anbar Province, could you give us an update about what's your contact now with them? Is there any training going on to train Sunni tribes to fight ISIL? And I have a follow-up.

CENTCOM OFFICIAL: OK. Yeah, absolutely. Very quickly. I mean, we can get you the exact numbers. But we have had Sunni tribal members that have come through our training sites there in Al Anbar. As you know, undoing 30 years of history is a very difficult thing. And the government of Iraq and the political outreach and the Sunni outreach and all the things that have to occur are still a work in progress. But they are moving in a positive direction. It may not be as fast as some would like, but the inclusion of the Sunni tribes, the inclusion of the Sunnis writ large is an absolute critical component to this all working. And the leadership in Iraq is moving in the right direction to accommodate that.

And your follow-up, please?

Q: Yeah, last question. We -- we have heard lately that in Iran that -- that you have seen – that CENTCOM has seen as – has noticed -- Iranian military activities over Iraq. Have you seen anything like that lately in the last few weeks? Any Iranian air force over -- over Iraq?

CENTCOM OFFICIAL: Not to my knowledge in the last couple weeks. It's not to say it's not occurring. And we don't deny that there is Iranian influence and there's Iranian activity and a force presence inside of Iraq. But thus far, because we have a common goal, and there's -- there's a common interest there, it -- and we have been working with the government of Iraq to make sure that they understand that there are certainly things out there that we cannot tolerate. I.e., the misuse of Shia militias and those types of things in an inappropriate way. But we acknowledge that they are there and they are operating.

Q: What do you mean by "force presence" in Iraq? Could you qualify --

CENTCOM OFFICIAL: Again, we don't have exact numbers, but we know that there are -- there's an Iranian presence in Iraq.

Q: I mean, do you mean like Iranian ground troops in Iraq? That's what you mean?

CENTCOM OFFICIAL: It ranges -- it's largely advisers, to the knowledge that I have.

Q: Are they working with the -- with the Iraqi army?

So, sir?

Yeah, my question is, you said there are advisers. Could you answer my question, if they are working with the Iraqi army?

CENTCOM OFFICIAL: To our knowledge -- I mean, at least not in a condoned way that -- that we know of. And I -- I didn't understand the question initially. It -- I -- I don't believe that that -- that is occurring.

CENTCOM OFFICIAL: And, Joe, first -- Joe, this is -- (inaudible). Honestly, for specifics about that, while we are aware that there's sometimes a presence there, we don't know the specific details. And, obviously, we'd tell you to reach out to the Iraqis on that one.

Q: And, (inaudible), could you just give an estimate of the number of ISIL forces in Mosul currently?

CENTCOM OFFICIAL: That ranges between 1,000 and 2,000, but we continue to refine that.

Q: And also, can you tell us --

MODERATOR: All right.

Q: -- one last thing in Mosul? Can you tell us what are they doing in Mosul? Building up defenses? Moving into buildings? What -- what are you seeing in there, and how difficult will this fight be, do you think?

CENTCOM OFFICIAL: We have a very short timeline out here. I can tell you, obviously, Mosul will not be easy. It's going to be a difficult fight, but we're not going to get into the specifics of what we're seeing ISIL do or not do to prepare for that.

MODERATOR: Perfect. Thank you --

CENTCOM OFFICIAL: And that's all we have time for right now -- (inaudible).

MODERATOR: Thank you.