Air Force general: Middle East mission to shift

Bombing decreases after Air Force, partners see ‘catastrophic success’

By JIM HILLEY
jim@theitem.com
Posted 11/17/17

With the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant - ISIL, also referred to as ISIS - now pushed out of major urban areas in Iraq and Syria, Brig. Gen. Matthew Isler, assistant deputy commander of U.S. Air Forces Central Command, says the air campaign in …

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Air Force general: Middle East mission to shift

Bombing decreases after Air Force, partners see ‘catastrophic success’

Airman 1st Class Jordan Stracener, 609th Air Operations Center Detachment 1 air tasking order production technician, monitors various air tasking orders at Shaw Air Force Base. Airmen at Shaw are an integral part of interpreting intelligence and producing orders for sorties in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Airman 1st Class Jordan Stracener, 609th Air Operations Center Detachment 1 air tasking order production technician, monitors various air tasking orders at Shaw Air Force Base. Airmen at Shaw are an integral part of interpreting intelligence and producing orders for sorties in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.
PHOTO PROVIDED
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With the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant - ISIL, also referred to as ISIS - now pushed out of major urban areas in Iraq and Syria, Brig. Gen. Matthew Isler, assistant deputy commander of U.S. Air Forces Central Command, says the air campaign in those areas is entering a transition phase.

During an interview at Shaw Air Force Base, Isler described the Air Force's role there as a support for partner forces, such as the Iraqi army and the Syrian Democratic Forces in Syria.

"What has changed is those partner forces are experiencing catastrophic success," Isler said. "Last week, (Iraqi government forces) liberated Al Qa'im, the last major urban area, as Iraq has marched all the way to its borders."

He said the Iraqi forces, including the Iraqi army, federal police and counter-terrorism forces, are now in some smaller cities on the north side of the Euphrates.

On the other side of the border in Syria, the Syrian Democratic Forces have liberated Raqqa.

Isler said the level of support provided by the U.S. Air Force has not changed, but the level of bombing has dropped.

"In August, we dropped over 5,000 munitions in support of our partner forces," he said. "In September, that decreased. In October, that decreased. Last week, we were dropping less than a third of the rate we were in August."

Isler said that because ISIL is collapsing and losing territory so quickly, the partner forces are able to take on what remains of ISIL with less support.

"In the areas Iraq is clearing, they are able to handle ISIL with their own forces. They don't need our help as much," he said. "We are still doing the intelligence work with them. We are still doing advice and assist to our partner forces, but the partner forces are doing the heavy lifting."

Isler said he is optimistic about the future in Iraq largely because the Iraqi forces are becoming much more capable.

"I have seen the Iraqi security forces grow in their internal capabilities," he said. "Every operation they get better, they get stronger, they get better at working together."

That togetherness is a microcosm of the entire country, Isler said.

When the Iraqi forces were preparing to oust ISIL from Mosul, the counter-terrorism forces, the Iraqi army, the federal police and others were not coordinated, he said.

"They realized they couldn't be successful fighting separately. They realized they had to mass forces and fight together," Isler said. "That was the biggest change in the year I was in Iraq."

He said the liberation of Tal Afar in August was planned and executed by Iraqi forces.

"We shaped the maneuver ahead of it. We shaped the battle space with intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and deliberate targeting to create the conditions for success," he said. "Then the Iraqis did the maneuver with overwhelming force, and ISIL ran away from that city."

As ISIL fled, coalition forces destroyed them from the air, Isler said.

ISIL is not yet defeated in Iraq, Isler said, but the Iraqis are on a roll of success that is continuing.

In Syria, ISIL is struggling to hold terrain, he said.

He cautioned that there is still a lot of work to do to defeat ISIL and define how a transition to peace and stability takes place.

"It is too early for a timeline or [to predict] how that happens," he said.

Isler said maintaining the capability to prevent an ISIL comeback is the focus at U.S. Central Command.

"We are there at the invitation of Iraq, and we are working to make sure the Iraqis have the capability to maintain their sovereignty," he said.

Iraq's land forces have grown throughout the conflict, he said, and their air force has improved, as well.

"Their F-16s are really good. Their F-16s are highly trained. They drop precision-guided munitions, and they are really good with them," Isler said. "They hit what they are going after."

The Iraqi forces have developed important targeting and intelligence capabilities, Isler said.

As ISIL is rolled back in Iraq and Syria, there is a growing commitment in Afghanistan, he said.

He said AFCENT is making sure it has the air capability to make Operation Resolute Support a success.

"Last month, October, we had over 650 weapons employed in support of the Afghanistan security forces - that is the highest amount ever," he said.

He said U.S. advisers have been impressed by the growth in Afghanistan's air capability.

"We are seeing their airmen, who have been trained as partners here in the U.S., going forward and doing close air support for their soldiers in really challenging scenarios," he said. "Doing exactly what they are trained to do."

Editor's note: This article uses the acronym ISIL to refer to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. The terrorist group is also known by the acronym ISIS, Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.