Gen. Joseph Votel, commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, traveled to the region last week to take stock of the war against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
The U.S. military has supported Iraqi and Kurdish ground forces with airstrikes, training and advising. In Syria, the Pentagon has backed local militias made up of Kurds, Arabs and Turkomen, with weapons and air support.
Votel sat down with The Times to discuss what he heard from commanders on the ground. Here’s an edited version of his comments.
What challenges lie ahead for Iraqi forces in the operation to recapture Mosul?
This operation can unfold over weeks and months here, so being able to maintain momentum over that time is a challenge. It’s a challenge for any military, including our own forces. So it’s something we need to watch.
As the battle for Mosul moves into an urban environment, how do you limit the risk of U.S. airstrikes to civilians?
I think it’s noteworthy that as we began the operation for Mosul, Prime Minister Haider Abadi, who ultimately approved the plan, gave some very good guidance about how he wanted to use air power in and around the city. He wanted to focus on command and control nodes. He wanted to focus on locations where the Islamic State had weapons and clear military targets, so that we prevent more human suffering.
We’re certainly responding to requests for fire from Iraqi security forces on the ground, but we have an obligation to make sure we know the effects on the ground.
[We learned] lessons from Ramadi, where there was a lot of destruction as a result of [munitions] that were delivered. If you destroy it, it has to be rebuilt. So we will try to meet the prime minister’s intention here.
The population in Mosul is mostly Sunni Muslim. The Iraqi army is largely Shiite. Do you think Iraqi forces will be welcomed as a liberating force?
My belief is how you do things is as important as the things that you do. So how the Iraqi forces, supported by coalition forces, conduct themselves speaks volumes. The way we conduct our operations, mindful of the impact on civilians; the way that we try to help aid get in there quickly; the way we try to minimize the suffering; the way we get civilian leadership back in place; I think are all things that can be done in order to continue to send the right message that Iraqi security forces are truly focused on helping these poor people who have been under the thumb of the Islamic State for two years.
Iraqi leadership [has reported] small groups exfiltrating out. These are small elements, 5 or 6 people. In some cases they don’t have weapons and look like civilians. It’s difficult to track them because they are small groups. We haven’t seen a large concentration of forces move out of the city yet. As more pressure is put on the city, I think there is a likelihood we will see more.
How are plans shaping up to retake Raqqah, Islamic State’s self-declared capital in Syria?
In this case you have the Islamic State embedded in a large city, embedded in the population, so I think it’s a little bit difficult. The first capability that the force needs is a requisite number of fighters. They have to be trained. They have to be made ready, and in some cases they need to be equipped for these operations. Then they need the proper planning that goes along with that.
The phase we’re in now is what I call the prepare and assure phase, where our forces on the ground are giving their support, building up and generating forces, developing capability for them to do this. What we’ll see next is an isolation of Raqqah and an assault on the city.
Are you worried about what comes after the Islamic State?
I don’t think anybody has any illusions about this. The battle for Mosul is an important one, but it won’t be the last one. It won’t be sufficient for addressing the ultimate defeat of the enemy. As we break up the caliphate, we should expect they will move into a mode that is more of what we associate with terror organizations: smaller elements that are more dispersed and not worried about holding terrain, but on conducting attacks. Our conversations with Iraq have been along those lines and they recognize that they’ll have to be prepared for that.
I think this is an all-force issue. Iraqi special forces will have a role in this, the army will certainly have a role, the police will have a role, the tribal elements and civilian leadership will also have an important role. This is an all-hands-on-deck kind of approach.