During a trip to Fort Hood last week, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said the current battlefield situation in Iraq and Syria is the most complex he has seen in his career.
Fighting Islamic State is “extremely complex” due to the war involving 20 or more named organizations involved in the conflict, he said. Those organizations include Syrian government forces, Iran, Iraq, Russia, rebellion groups, the U.S. and its allies, and multiple terrorist organizations like al-Qaida and the Islamic State, which also goes by the names ISIS, ISIL and Daesh.
“You’ve got a very complex situation in addition to ISIS,” Milley said.
Still, the United States’ main opponent in the area is the Islamic State. President Barack Obama has ordered that Islamic State should be destroyed.
“What it’s going to take to destroy them — the president said ‘destroy them’ — we’re evaluating that right now,” Milley said.
Enter III Corps.
Fort Hood’s top headquarters unit, led by III Corps and Fort Hood commander Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland, deployed with about 500 troops to the Middle East in September to lead the fight against Islamic State.
While the mission hasn’t been easy, the Herald caught up with III Corps spokesman Col. Christopher Garver, who gave us a report from downrange on how things are going. Here is what he said:
What have been the highlights for III Corps since the deployment began earlier this year?
Since deploying to the Middle East in September, III Corps has assumed the role of the Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve, which is the military component of the 65-nation Coalition to degrade and ultimately defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL. (Which is also known as IS or ISIS, and locally as Da’ish or Daesh.)We have improved the training of the Iraqi Security Forces by analyzing the techniques ISIL is using and adjusting the training to adapt to those techniques. An example of this is that our analysis showed that ISIL is defending much more like a conventional force that builds defensive fortifications, rather than using insurgent “hit and run” tactics. We therefore added more comprehensive engineer training for the Iraqi Security Forces, teaching them to open lanes through minefields made with IEDs (improvised explosive devices) and through defensive trenches and fortifications. We have also seen an increase in the effectiveness of Coalition strikes against the facilities that ISIL uses to steal oil to fund their activities. It was also satisfying to see the successful attack by the Kurdish Iraqi Security Forces, called the Peshmerga, to retake the town of Sinjar that had fallen to ISIL a year ago. We know we are only one year into a multi-year campaign to degrade and defeat ISIL, but we feel our initial efforts have had positive impact on the efforts of the campaign.
What are some examples of challenges III Corps has faced during this deployment?
This fight against ISIL is as complex and challenging as and we’ve seen in our recent deployments. ISIL is as determined as al-Qaida In Iraq, the Iraqi insurgents, and the Taliban, but they use very different tactics — and their brutality reaches a whole new level. It has also been challenging to rapidly increase the combat effectiveness of the Iraqi Security Forces through training while they are attempting to rebuild their army through recruiting and conduct combat operations at the same time. There is also the challenge of accomplishing tasks in Iraq and Syria that remind us of the friction of war – we had an old saying when we were here before, “In Iraq, even ‘easy’ is hard,” and it still seems to be true today. Finally, we have the additional challenge of not relinquishing the responsibility for III Corps while we are deployed. Unlike other deployments in the last 14 years, Lt. Gen. MacFarland retains command of III Corps at the same time he is the Combined Joint Task Force commander for Operation Inherent Resolve. So while he is here in the Middle East, orchestrating the fight against ISIL, he is also responsible for the combat readiness of the four divisions, sustainment command, cavalry regiment, numerous other commands, and the 100,000 soldiers who make up III Corps.
How has Russia’s involvement in the war in Syria impacted what III Corps is doing?
Russia’s involvement has changed the political landscape of the ongoing civil war in Syria, to be sure. They entered the conflict saying they wanted to attack ISIL, but we see them attacking Syrian opposition forces more than they attack ISIL. We are also concerned about their apparently indiscriminate style of attacking targets with little or no regard for civilian casualties. In terms of their impacts on III Corps operations as we continue the fight against ISIL, there isn’t much. We continue to conduct our operations against ISIL unimpeded. We have developed communication methods to ensure our aircraft and Russian aircraft operate safely, and we have to keep an eye on what impacts Russia’s attacks against ISIL have on ISIL’s operations, but we continue to operate in both Syria and Iraq against ISIL.
Is III Corps in charge of the coalition that is fighting Islamic State? How does that work organizationally?
There is a 65-nation coalition that is united against ISIL and pledged to fight ISIL in a whole-of-governments approach. Operation Inherent Resolve is the military effort against the terrorist group. U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Fla., has been designated the Coalition Force Command, or CFC, to orchestrate the entire mission at the military/diplomatic level. The headquarters that is directly below the CENTCOM command is the Combined Joint Task Force, or CJTF. Lt. Gen. MacFarland commands the Combined Joint Task Force and the III Corps staff makes up the bulk of the headquarters. The rest of the headquarters is made up of the other services (Air Force, Navy, and Marines) and Coalition partners from 18 other nations.
Did the Islamic State attack in Paris last week change anything with the way III Corps is conducting the mission?
After the horrific attack in Paris last week, we procedurally reviewed our force protection status to make sure we were ready in case there was a threat of a copycat attack on any of our locations. We also have fully supported France’s airstrikes against the self-proclaimed capital of the Islamic State, ArRaqqah, Syria. Most importantly, the attack in Paris reaffirmed exactly why we have to defeat the Islamic State here in the Middle East. This terrorist organization wants to export attacks like the attack in Paris to the cities of our country and that of our allies. We must prevent attacks like that in Dallas, in San Antonio, in Austin. So the attack in Paris certainly galvanized my will to defeat ISIL and I believe it galvanized the will of those in III Corps.
Was III Corps involved in the ISIS prison raid near the town of Hawija, Iraq, that freed about 70 prisoners? If so, how was III Corps involved?
As the operational level headquarters synchronizing the entire fight against ISIL in Iraq and Syria, we were aware of the rescue operation conducted by the Iraqi Security Forces in the Kurdistan region. The Coalition provided support to that operation through intelligence, air support, and transportation support. One U.S. Special Forces soldier, as you know, was killed on the operation protecting his Iraqi Kurd partners that he advises and assists. III Corps soldiers did not, however, play any physical role in the operation.
Is III Corps working with Kurdish Peshmerga forces? If so, how important is this relationship?
Again, as the operational level headquarters synchronizing the entire fight against ISIL in Iraq and Syria, the Coalition provides support to the Peshmerga units in Kurdish Iraq. LTG MacFarland meets regularly with military and civilian leaders in the Kurdistan Region Government. Other than that, III Corps Soldiers do not regularly interact with Kurdish forces directly; there are U.S. and Coalition troops that provide direct support to them. The relationship is important to the success of the campaign against ISIL, as the Peshmerga units are effective, motivated warriors. They demonstrated this effectiveness against ISIL when they recaptured the town of Sinjar, Iraq last week.
What are some other things III Corps is doing during this deployment, and how is it important to the overall fight against the Islamic State?
As the headquarters of the fight against ISIL, we are doing exactly what a corps headquarters is supposed to do – exactly what we trained for during our multiple Warfighter Exercises over the past year. We are increasing the effectiveness of the strikes against ISIL targets. We are improving the effectiveness and the relevance of the training and equipping of the Iraqi Security Forces to ensure they are better at fighting ISIL face-to-face. And we are organizing the entire fight against ISIL as a single campaign, attacking ISIL simultaneously at all locations, applying pressure across the entire depth of the territory ISIL controls and across the other functions of their operation, such as their illegal financing activities, to degrade them and ultimately defeat them.