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How the U.S. military is supporting Iraq against ISIS

April 19, 2016 at 6:35 PM EDT
Secretary of Defense Ash Carter announced Monday that the U.S. will be sending 217 more soldiers into Iraq, bringing total American strength there over 4,000. The news comes as Iraqi forces begin their advance on the Islamic State-held city of Mosul, a campaign supported and funded by the U.S. Judy Woodruff talks to presidential envoy Brett McGurk for more on the struggle to drive ISIS from Iraq.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now: to another major American military campaign, against ISIS.

Yesterday, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter announced that some 217 more American troops would soon go to Iraq, pushing the American strength there to over 4,000. The U.S. will also send Apache fast-attack helicopters, which will help protect the Iraqi army as it begins its advance on the ISIS-held city of Mosul.

The U.S. also announced more than $400 million in aid to the Kurdish Peshmerga forces in Northern Iraq.

For more on all this and the wider war against ISIS, I’m joined by President Obama’s special envoy to the coalition fighting ISIS, Brett McGurk.

Welcome back to the program.

BRETT MCGURK, Special Presidential Envoy: Thank you, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why is — and why is the president sending these additional U.S. advisers?

BRETT MCGURK: Well, the president really instructed our team about four or five months ago to do all we can to accelerate the campaign.

And it took a while, Judy, to get particularly the Iraqi forces in place to be able to stand up, maneuver, conduct offensive operations. And we’re now seeing some success. They liberated Ramadi just last week. They liberated a really critical strategic town called Al-Hit just to the west of Ramadi in the center of the Euphrates Valley.

It’s been a stronghold of ISIL. And they liberated that last week. And what we’re now in position to do with the Iraqi security forces is conduct pressure against ISIL on multiple simultaneous fronts. That’s the Euphrates Valley and Anbar Province, where operations will continue, and now beginning up toward Mosul.

So, this is really a package that’s been in development for some time, and we think it will give the Iraqis some unique capabilities as it moves on Mosul. Mosul is a little different than Ramadi. Logistically, the Iraqis have the travel a little further than they’re usually used to.

So we will be helping with logistics, we will be helping with sustainment. And, of course, when they come into combat, we will be ready to support them with Apache helicopters and some other enablers.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But sending U.S. forces or U.S. advisers closer to the front lines, is this an acknowledgment the Iraqi military is really not able to do the job alone??

BRETT MCGURK: No, it’s really — you have to look at the topography of the battlefield.

In Ramadi, for example, when Ramadi fell, the president ordered a detachment of U.S. special forces to Taqaddum Air Base, which is sandwiched right in between Ramadi and Fallujah. It’s only about 25 kilometers or so from the front lines.

Mosul is — we have to be with the Iraqis in their headquarters, and their headquarters as they move toward Mosul will change. They will be kind of mobile. So we will be with the Iraqi commanders, advising and assisting what they’re doing, which is very similar to what we did in Anbar province.

But in Anbar, where we have two facilities, it’s a little more stationary. So, we’re on base. We’re advising and assisting. In Mosul, there will be a lot of — it will be a little more dynamic. So, we want to make sure that our best advisers are with the headquarters, with the Iraqi commanders as they’re planning and conducting their operations.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is it fair the call this mission creep?

BRETT MCGURK: No, it’s the exact same mission in Mosul that we have been doing in Anbar province. It’s just we’re moving into that phase in Mosul now. It’s the same mission.

The only difference is Apache helicopters. But we were prepared to use Apache helicopters. The president authorized it for Ramadi, but given the situation, given the fact that the Iraqis were having an awful lot of success, and given the urban environment, we determined that it really wasn’t needed.

But, in Mosul, it’s a complex terrain. It’s the citadel of Da’esh. They’re well-defended there. So, we think Apaches can make a difference. We discussed this with the Iraqi government. Everything we do in Iraq is with the consent of the Iraqi government. This is something Prime Minister Abadi wanted. And we found a formula that we think will be effective.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let me ask you about some criticism we’re hearing from the other side. The “NewsHour” spoke today with retired Army Colonel Derek Harvey, who, as you know, advised General David Petraeus in Iraq for a number of years.

He told us he thinks these steps represent insufficient resources in the first place by the administration and poor execution by the administration working with the Iraqis.

BRETT MCGURK: Well, I worked in Iraq with David Petraeus back in those days, too, and Ambassador Crocker. It’s a different time now. We’re not fighting a war.

The Iraqis are fighting the war. We’re in the middle of liberating all of Anbar province. Again, we liberated Ramadi. That was done with Iraqis. We’re now moving west up the Euphrates Valley. This is being done with Iraqis. The strategic town of Al-Hit is critical because it opens up a free expressway from Ramadi to Haditha.

There’s a town of Haditha, which has been under siege by Da’esh for almost two years. We’re now in a position to break that siege. So, we’re having an awful lot of success. It’s a different campaign than it was in 2007-2008. You know, Americans are not doing the fighting.

We are advising. We’re assisting. We’re providing devastating air support and special operations. You know, there are things we of course don’t talk about much. We have special operations and special forces in Northern Iraq. They’re very effective against the leadership of Da’esh.

And so, you know, they’re doing a great job. And everything we do, again, Judy, is with the consent of the Iraqi government. This is not a situation in which we’re an occupying force. We’re just — it’s a very, very different, much more complex, much more challenging situation than 2007.

But we believe that the most sustainable way to do this is to get the Iraqis fighting, to empower locals.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But you can understand why people look at this, and they see more troops going, they see Apache helicopters going, and they want to know what’s going on.

But just in the time we have left, I want to ask you about Syria, the fight against ISIS there. First of all, do you see real evidence that the Russians have begun to go after ISIS, rather than going after the rebels who are fighting the Assad regime?

BRETT MCGURK: Well, we have seen a bit of a shift.

And if you look at the statistics that we talk about, when Russia came in, they claimed to be going after ISIL. And that just simply wasn’t true. About 80 percent of their strikes were against opposition, the moderate opposition forces.

Since the cessation of hostilities came in place, their airstrikes have shifted quite a bit. And at one point, it was about 70 percent against ISIL. And they helped the Syrian forces retake Palmyra.

But, look, we have a very long way to go in Syria. There is no question. President Obama spoke with President Putin yesterday. We will be traveling with the president and secretary tonight to Saudi Arabia to meet with the GCC and discuss the situation in Syria.

But in the war against ISIL in Syria, we’re very focused, again, east of the Euphrates River, on moving down and constricting Al-Raqqa, its center of operations. And that’s something that we’re also looking at accelerating some of our efforts there.

And we’re also working to again close off that last about 98-kilometer strip of border that ISIL still controls with Turkey. And there’s very active fighting ongoing there now, which we’re supporting. It’s a very complex, very dynamic situation. There are no shortcuts. There are no easy answers.

But what we’re doing is that, when we see something that works — and what we have seen in the Euphrates Valley and Anbar province, the advising, the assisting, that’s worked. And now we’re going to replicate that as we move onto the campaign against — to liberate Mosul.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, a lot of fronts to keep track of there, as well as in Iraq.

Brett McGurk, special presidential envoy, you’re off to Saudi Arabia later today, where President Obama will be. Thank you very much for joining for us.

BRETT MCGURK: Judy, thank you so much. Great to be here.

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