Department of Defense Briefing by Gen. Townsend via Telephone from Baghdad, Iraq
Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend, commander, Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve
CAPTAIN JEFF DAVIS: Good afternoon. I understand we are feeding out over the pool line for the audio. What's that?
Hey, Tom Masten, are we able to turn the wifi on? We're not? Okay. I'm sorry. Well, all the more reason to be quick.
And General Townsend, just want to make sure you can hear us and we can hear you.
LIEUTENANT GENERAL STEPHEN TOWNSEND: Yes, I've got you.
CAPT. DAVIS: That didn't sound good. Hey Tom, we're not sounding good out here.
STAFF: (Off mic.)
LT. GEN. TOWNSEND: Okay. So that is just an unfortunate happenstance of war. We're on -- apparently, we're having a base defense drill right at this moment and that was the announcement for everyone to move to cover and lock down. So I'm in -- I'm undercover and I'm locked down, but we might have more of those announcements during this interview. I apologize for that, unforeseeable. If those occur, we'll just pause until they get done saying whatever they're saying. Okay?
CAPT. DAVIS: Thank you.
And we'll turn it over to you for opening comments.
LT. GEN. TOWNSEND: Okay. So that just adds a little real life, you know, wartime color commentary to what -- context to what I'm saying here. We're doing a base defense drill, if you weren't able to hear that. We try to smother the speaker without much success. So, OK. Thanks for giving me the time to address you all today on short notice. But we've had some significant events here in -- in Iraq and Syria. The Iraq and Syria counter-ISIS AOR, and I think when we have significant events take place, at some point, the commanders have to be willing to stand up and answer tough questions.
So I'd like to speak with you briefly about what's going on in Mosul and then I'll provide you an update on Syria and take your questions. And rather than talk about the broader campaign, I'll focus on the issues and events that I think are probably foremost on your mind, because they're what I'm seeing almost non-stop in the news right now. But I would welcome your comments, broader comments about how our campaign's going as well. So first and foremost, the death of innocent civilians in war is a terrible tragedy that weighs heavily on all of us.
That's why the coalition takes any allegation of possible civilian casualties, in any number, very seriously, and why we take a deliberate approach to assess each and every allegation and report these results publicly, unlike our enemy I might add. A general officer's been appointed to lead our civilian casualty credibility assessment. The most recent allegation in Mosul, to determine the facts of the case and the validity of the allegation. Right now there are a lot of conflicting reports as to what brought down the building or buildings that caused civilian casualties, what we know for sure, is that we did conduct a strike in that area. What we don't know for certain is that that strike is responsible for the casualties in question.
There are also reports that ISIS may have trapped civilians in the house and rigged it to blow up. There's a report a secondary VBIED explosion may have been the cause that destroyed the house. Also, I would point out these aren't necessarily mutually exclusive, it could have been a combination of these events that caused this tragedy and that's why we're hesitant to say anything definitive until our proper process is completed.
I'll say this, if we did it, and I'd say there's at least a fair chance that we did. It was an unintentional accident of war and we will transparently report it to you when we're ready. The coalition freely and transparently takes on the responsibility to act in accordance with the law of armed conflict, in all of our operations.
We set the highest standards for protecting civilians. It is my view, that our dedication, diligence and discipline in prosecuting our combat operations while protecting civilians, is without precedent in recorded history of warfare. None of this changes the basic facts though. Civilians are dying in Mosul. Most of them are dying at the hands of ISIS and that's the real horror, the real tragedy of Mosul.
Make no mistake about it, ISIS will continue to cause massive human suffering, if the ISIS -- if the Iraqi security forces and the coalition do not prevail. Our enemy, ISIS, are evil and murderous butchers, engaged in purposeful and mass slaughter. There are countless mass graves surrounding Mosul. ISIS put those bodies in there, not the coalition. I believe we should take a lesson from history, maybe inject a little moral clarity in what we're talking about here, about this issue. ISIS, their crimes against humanity must not be forgotten.
In the past few days, we have observed civilians fleeing from ISIS held buildings. We have heard reports that ISIS was shooting civilians trying to leave Mosul.
The Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service reported they found two houses rigged to blow and filled with hostages, one -- 45 in one house, 25 in another.
They managed to defuse the explosives and release the hostages without harm. If ISIS really wants to prevent human suffering, they can easily do so. They are in complete control of the areas they hold in Mosul.
They can leave at any time. The coalition respects human life, which is why we will not abandon our partners in their time of need or because of ISIS's inhumane tactics of terrorizing civilians using human shields and fighting from protected sites, such as schools, hospitals, religious sites, and civilian neighborhoods.
To put things in a little perspective for you, this is the most significant urban combat to take place since World War II; it is tough and brutal.
House by house, block by block fights. Despite that, the Iraqi Security Forces continue to press ISIS on multiple axes, presenting them with multiple dilemmas.
We know the enemy cannot respond to this. Tough fighting in one sector provides the opportunity for other elements to advance in other areas, and that's what the Iraqi Security Forces have been doing.
I think it's important to mention as well, despite the challenges, the government of Iraq and the United Nations are doing a great job caring for the internally displaced persons or refugees coming out of Mosul.
Everyone expected that there would be a lot of refugees, and we've seen roughly double -- double the numbers of them on the west side of Mosul than we saw on the east side.
They are certainly in a horrible situation, but they're being taken care of as best as anyone on the planet can do and thousands are returning to east Mosul every week.
And we support our Iraqi partners in Mosul, we're also supporting our Syrian partners outside of Raqqa. The Syrian Democratic Forces have completely isolated the eastside of Raqqa and are currently engaged in a tough battle to seize both the Tabqa Dam and the city of Tabqa, which is to the west of Raqqa.
Yesterday, they completed the seizure of the Tabqa airfield, on the south side of the city. This is a great accomplishment by a capable partner force.
They were supported by coalition advisers, U.S. and coalition airpower, Marine heavy artillery, and Army Apache helicopter gunships. Make no mistake about it though, the coalition has taken every precaution to ensure the integrity of Tabqa Dam.
I've seen a lot of crazy reporting in the media about Tabqa Dam in the last few days. We don't access that the dam is in any imminent danger and, to our knowledge, the dam has not been structurally damaged.
The Tabqa Dam is not a coalition target and when strikes occur on military targets, at or near the dam, we use non-cratering munitions to avoid unnecessary damage to the facility.
The coalition seeks to preserve the integrity of the dam because it's a vital resource for the people of Syria. The Syrian Democratic Forces have a plan in place to care for the dam after liberation from ISIS and that plan recognized the importance of the dam to Syria's economy, agriculture, and basic human needs and security.
So, if something happens to the Tabqa Dam, it will be at the hands of ISIS not the Coalition. So, what's my bottom line? This is a difficult and brutal fight on multiple fronts.
The most difficult I have seen in my career. Although our partners in the coalition have made mistakes that have harmed civilians, we have never targeted them, not once.
On the other hand, the savages that are ISIS deliberately target, terrorize and kill innocent civilians every day. The best and fastest way to end this human suffering is to quickly liberate these cities and Iraq and Syria from ISIS.
With that, I'll stop and take your questions.
CAPT. DAVIS: We're going to start with Bob Burns from the Associated Press.
Q: Thank you.
General Townsend, a question for you. You started out talking about I believe the March 17th incident with the civilian casualties. This and other instances recently have raised questions about whether the rules of engagement for airstrikes or the decision-making process or the tolerance for civilian casualties has changed in some way. Can you say whether that's the case, since you've taken command? And if not, is there any other way of explaining why there's been this spate of civilian casualties in Mosul?
LT. GEN. TOWNSEND: Yup, okay. Thanks, Bob.
So, I won't go into great detail about the ROE, because we don't, and they're classified. But I will say this, there have been some relatively minor adjustments to the ROE since I have been in command since last August. All of those changes were fairly low level, approved at the CENTCOM level; did not have to go to the secretary of defense or the administration.
And quite truthfully, they don't apply. They're not the cause of what we're seeing right now. So there were changes to the ROE, but they're not really related to what we're seeing right now.
We have made some adjustments that I know we have discussed in these forums before, back in December, to ease the application of our combat power. As we shifted from what was largely a defensive campaign through '14, '15 and most of '16, that -- we had very centralized approvals for fire missions. We have had to return to what is our actual U.S. military warfighting doctrine for offensive operations. What we realized is our defensive doctrine wasn't supporting us well in the attack.
And so we've taken steps to decentralize some of the process. But the facts of the matter, what has not changed is our care, our caution, our applications of the rules of force, how and when we apply our combat power, our tolerance for human -- civilian casualties. None of that has changed.
So how can I explain -- the second part of your question was to explain what we're seeing as a spate of civilian casualties. It's fairly predictable. In fact, I think if you look back at some of my statements since we started the Mosul fight in October, we started on the east side because we knew it would be easier. The east side was not where the enemy had invested two and a half years of defensive preparations.
The east side did not have neighborhoods that were more inclined to possibly side with or support ISIS's agenda. The east side was more open and more modern construction. So, that's why we saw less civilian casualties on the east side.
And as we transition to the west side, we have said all along the west side was gonna be a much harder fight. The terrain, the urban -- close urban terrain west side, the old side of Mosul, has -- we always knew was gonna be tough and favors the defender. Also, we knew that there are neighborhoods on the west side where al-Qaida used to reside and hide and ISIS resides and hides to this day and draws support from certain neighborhoods on the west side.
Plus, the dense urban construction I said already ancient and narrow streets, generations of construction built on generations of construction. And right now, we have just recently in the last two weeks, we have hit the hard urban old-town core, old town Mosul where the streets and the narrowest and the construction is the most dense. It is there that the enemy has invested two and a half years of defensive preparation. It is there where the fighting has gotten extraordinarily brutal. It is there where we're seeing the Iraqis attacking day after day and unable to advance because of the tenacity of the defending ISIS fighters.
So it is a tough, brutal fight. It is the toughest and most brutal phase of this war and probably the toughest -- it is the toughest and most brutal close quarters combat that I have experienced in my 34 years of service -- or I have observed or read about through my 34 years of service.
So I think that's really the explanation for the civilian casualties. The civilians are there. Some of them have been able to escape. Those that have not been able to escape are held against their will. They just aren't able to get out or they're just afraid to try to leave. As I said earlier, we're seeing double the amount of refugees coming out that we saw on the east side.
But still, that still leaves a lot of people and it's just unfortunate that they're just stuck in the crossfire. Over.
CAPT. DAVIS: Next, we'll go to Joe Tabet with Al Hurra.
Q: General Townsend, prominent Syrian Kurdish leader Taleb Muslim announced last night that Raqqa will be part of the Kurdish federation state. What's your comment on what he said? And how do you -- how could you coordinate between what the Kurdish leaders are saying and what your ally Turkey from the other hand is saying? Could you please give me your comment on what he said?
LT. GEN. TOWNSEND: Yeah, I think my comment is I don't have really much to say about it. I'm not -- it's not my mission to create a Kurdish federated -- federal state, whatever you called it, and it's not -- we're not liberating Raqqa for any one party. And in fact, actually what we see with the Syrian Democratic Forces is although they may be largely Kurdish led, they are over half non-Kurd. Mostly Arabs, some others, some Turkmen and some others.
But the Kurds are only about 10 percent of the -- less than 10 percent of the population of northern Syria. So I don't really see how there's actually gonna be anything called a Kurdish federal state in northern Syria. What I think is that the people of northern Syria, all of them, Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, others alike, are determining what their future's going to be. And, so, I don't really see a Kurdish federal state and I don't see -- I don't know whether Raqqa's going to be part of it or not. Our job is to rid northern Syria of ISIS and that's what we're doing.
Q: Quick follow up. How do you see Raqqa after the liberation? Can you assure that the Kurdish will have no presence there? Can you expect that the U.S. military will have a presence, boots on the ground, inside Raqqa?
LT. GEN. TOWNSEND: I'm sorry. Could you repeat the last question there? We had -- we had another drill -- battle drill announcement going on there. Say that again?
Q: My question was, how do you see the Raqqa -- Raqqa after the liberation? Can you assure that the Kurdish fighters will have no presence inside the city? Do you expect that the U.S. military will have a presence after the liberation of -- of the city?
LT. GEN. TOWNSEND: OK. So, post liberation Raqqa, what's that look like? So, Raqqa is largely, by overwhelming majority, an Arab city. And the Syrian democratic forces are recruiting the Syrian -- they are enlargening the Syrian Arab Coalition, part of their formation, to liberate Raqqa. Will there be Kurds that will fight in Raqqa? Certainly there will be, because there are Kurds from Raqqa. Raqqa is not homogeneous. They are all the peoples who live in northern Syria are also living in Raqqa. So some Kurds will fight there, some Kurds units may fight there. I don't expect any Kurdish units to remain in Raqqa, what we have seen as Syrian democratic forces have liberated a good 20 percent of more of northern Syria, is they have -- they have recruited fighters from the local area. They have led the assault to liberate their own towns and villages.
Once those have been liberated, they believe the local fighters, Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen alike, whoever's from that local area, they leave them to secure it and they leave them to govern it and they move on. So, again, remember my point, the Kurds are less than 10 percent of the population. They can't really do anything by force. They can't rule or dictate what happens in northern Syria. They will -- they will lead and they will bring together the coalitions they have to go take Raqqa. I think at the end of the fight, there are probably few, if any, probably none -- Kurdish fighting elements left in Raqqa, because that's not the demographics of the place. They'll turn it over to Raqqawis to secure and govern themselves. As far as your question about U.S. or coalition forces entering Raqqa, I won't -- I won't predict that or project that. I will say that we have advisors on the ground and they will accompany our partners wherever they need to, to defeat Daesh. Just like they're doing in Mosul.
CAPT. DAVIS: Barbara Starr with CNN.
Q: Thank you for doing this General Townsend. If we could go back to Mosul for a minute. You said that you thought, quoting you, "There is a fair chance we did it." I want to ask you, more precisely, what you mean by that? So, do you have -- one, do you think you will be able to come to a definitive resolution of what happened and be able to offer the evidence of that?
Do you think that the reports -- that there was a VCIED and a booby trap house are valid, and did they play a role, did the -- is your sense of it that all of this was, sort of, set up and you might have gotten lured into, essentially, a trap that ISIS set using human shields?
LT. GEN. TOWNSEND: Thanks, Barb, for the question. Nice to hear you.
I do want to say that I watched some of your reporting over the last couple days, and I appreciate it for it's -- what I viewed as a balanced approach to this.
So, as far as you question goes, what did I mean when I -- was I dropping a hint? Yes, I was dropping a hint that there's a fair chance that we did it.
So, I don't -- here's what I don't want to do -- I don't want to prejudice the investigative process and you all -- you know, you all report on just -- I feel like I'm watching the latest crime on TV where everybody is asking the chief of police to answer right now, who did it. I can't answer right now, because we have an investigation going on.
But our initial assessment is -- shows that we did strike in that area. There were multiple strikes in that area. So is it possible that we did that? Yes, I think it is possible. I think there's -- that's what I meant by there's a fair chance. If we didn't strike in that area, I would be telling you right now it's unlikely. But, because we struck in that area, I think there's a fair chance that we did it.
Now, we've had some people go and make their initial assessments, the Iraqi's -- we got up there with our Iraqi partners in the last 24 hours, and so we've seen some things that gave us some initial impressions, and I don't want to go into to much detail about that, because again, initial impressions may not be right.
We took some people up there who have some technology and some skills, and we let them look at the scene, and they've got to, kind of, do some analysis of what they saw and samples that they took, that kind of thing. But my initial assessment is that we probably had a role in these casualties.
Now, here's what I don't know: What I don't know is, were they gathered there by the enemy? We still have some assessments to do. I would say this -- that it sure looks like they were. The Iraqis firmly believe that they were gathered there by the enemy. And the people we're talking to say that they were gathered there.
Now, whether that was attempting to lure us deliberately or they were just using them as human shields to try to, you know, protect their fighting position. We know that the ISIS were fighting from that position, from that building, and there were people that you really can't account for in any other way in any other way of why they would all be there unless they were forced there.
So, that -- my initial impression is the enemy had a hand in this, and that there's also a fair chance that our strike had some role in it. I think it's probably going to play out to be some sort of combination, but you know what, I can't really say for sure, and we've just go to let the investigation play out.
Q: You had people there. Are you saying that you also had U.S. personnel on site?
LT. GEN. TOWNSEND: Yes, I am saying that. U.S. personnel visited the site.
CAPT. DAVIS: Courtney Kube with NBC News.
Q: Actually, Barbara just asked my question. But one follow-on to you answer to it. You said the initial assessment is we probably had a role in these casualties. Do you have any initial assessment on whether the volume, the number of casualties is -- is anywhere near accurate? Do you have -- I know you don't want to talk about -- get in front of the investigation, but do you have anything on that?
LT. GEN. TOWNSEND: Well, not really, and here's why. Because I don't know what number you have in your head. I have seen everything from a low of 25 to 40, to a high of 237. And I've seen about six or seven different numbers in between. So, I don't really want to characterize the number because we've got to let the investigation play out. And I want the Iraqis to kind of tell us what they think that number is.
But I don't know what number you have in your head, so I can't tell you if it's accurate or not.
Q: I never keep any numbers in my head, general.
The -- so, is one of the other reasons that you think there might be a fair chance that the U.S. had some part in this, because you -- the U.S. munitions that were dropped actually brought the entire house down, or the building down, whatever it was? And then -- and also, is it standard on a dynamic strike like that for there to be ISR or for there to be some sort of an overwatch both prior and after the strike for a certain amount of time?
LT. GEN. TOWNSEND: Okay, so on your question about the munitions, I'll try to answer that in a sort of a -- well, I'll try to be straightforward here. Actually, our munitions -- the fact that the whole building collapsed actually contradicts our involvement. The munition that we used should not have collapsed an entire building.
So that is one of those things that we're trying to figure out in the investigative process, because we have -- as you know, we have munitions in our inventory that can collapse whole buildings. That's not what we used in this case. And so the building should not have collapsed, and that's something we've got to figure out.
As far as ISR on dynamic strikes, you're asking me questions that I don't really want the enemy to know the answer to. So I'll say this. We regularly employ ISR -- almost always employ ISR prior to, during and after strikes, as long as conditions permit that. That's our -- one of our standard kind of drills.
But I won't say how long before or how long after. I don't want the enemy to know that.
CAPT. DAVIS: Next, Tara Kopp, Stars and Stripes.
Q: General, thank you for doing this. Who's the general officer overseeing these investigations?
LT. GEN. TOWNSEND: Well, OK. I don't think there's any harm in announcing that. His -- his name is Brigadier General Isler. He is an Air Force -- a U.S. Air Force general that's been here working on the Iraq problem as part -- as the CJFLCC -- the Combined Joint Forces Land Component, one of my subordinate unit headquarters here.
He's part of that. And he's a very experienced strike pilot and been working in our strike cell. So he's got -- and he's done a couple of these. So he's very experienced and that's probably new news. We just recently appointed him. And so -- over.
Q: He's overseeing all three recent CIVCAS investigations -- Mosul, the mosque, and then I believe there was one in Syria. I forgot the third one – a school -- right.
He's overseeing all three?
LT. GEN. TOWNSEND: No, he's overseeing this -- he's overseeing this one in Mosul.
Q: And then to get back to the Mosul -- the urban combat fighting -- you'd mentioned that it was the most intense you'd seen since World War II. Can you give us a rough ballpark number of how many U.S. advisers are experiencing this urban -- this close-quarters combat, being inserted with local Iraqi forces?
LT. GEN. TOWNSEND: Sorry. Could you say that last -- your question again? I didn't quite follow that.
Q: Can you tell us how many U.S. forces, rough ballpark number, are experiencing this intense close-quarters combat in west Mosul?
LT. GEN. TOWNSEND: No, I can't tell you that. I don't want the enemy to know the answer to that question either. I will say, though, you mentioned the -- you mentioned the school in Syria, which is another recent allegation. I would tell you that we haven't completed our assessment of that event yet. But my initial read is: not credible. I think that was a clean strike.
We had multiple corroborating intelligence sources from various types of intelligence that told us the enemy was using that school. And we observed it. And we saw what we expected to see. We struck it. We saw what we expected to see.
Afterwards, we got an allegation that it wasn't ISIS fighters in there; got a single allegation it wasn't ISIS fighters in there; it was instead refugees of some sort in the school. Yet, not seeing any corroborating evidence of that. In fact, everything we've seen since then suggests that it was the 30 or so ISIS fighters that we expected to be there.
So, I think that's going to play out to be unfounded, and the enemy -- we struck enemy fighters that we planned to strike there.
CAPT. DAVIS: Missy Ryan.
Q: Hi, general. Just a -- I want to follow up on one question regarding the process for approving these strikes. I know you don't want to go into too much detail, but one of the questions that the Mosul strike raises is how the United States verifies information that may be provided by local Iraqi forces that the United States is supporting on the ground.
So what can you tell us about how the United States verifies, you know, information or tips that it gets from the forces that it's partnering with, especially when, you know, you have a situation where civilians maybe inside of buildings for extended periods of time and not be visible, you know, from -- with ISR?
LT. GEN. TOWNSEND: Okay. So again, I won't go into great detail here because you're asking me stuff that the enemy would love to know. But what I will say is we go to great lengths to verify. If the -- if the person who is providing, or the source of the intelligence is not coalition -- well, heck, even if it is coalition, we go to great lengths to corroborate.
We almost never conduct a strike off of one source, one bit of intelligence. So, unless it's a coalition member with eyes on the target and voice on the radio, that's about the only time we'll make a strike that's uncorroborated by some other source of intelligence.
So we try -- great lengths with all the tools at our disposal, human intelligence, signals intelligence, imagery intelligence, to try to verify a target before we strike it.
In situations that are more dynamic, particularly in self-defense situations, this process has to unfold very quickly. Imagine -- imagine a VBIED barreling down on a forward-deployed unit, one of our partner units that we are authorized to support in self defense. And this armored VBIED is hurtling at them, and you may have as few as 20 to 30 seconds to make a decision, or less. To make a decision and shoot. Not just make the decision, but actually to execute fire mission to stop that VBIED that is hurtling at our partners, and our advisors might not be too far behind them. So this is the environment, this urban canyon, very dense, close, claustrophobically close terrain, streets so narrow that tanks can't accompany the troops in the attack.
And now, you have an armored VBIED hurtling at them from a block away. Or you have someone firing a heavy weapon from them, a building away, maybe just across the street. So this is the environment where these decisions have to be made and sometimes, they have to be made at extraordinarily short timeline.
And so this is just the facts of combat, here. And this is why it's not a war crime to accidentally kill civilians. It's unfortunate, but it's not a crime because these soldiers have to make these decisions in seconds, sometimes, and in circumstances that you cannot imagine, unless you've experienced them. Over.
Q: Do you feel confident that you all are able to verify that civilians, you know, aren't inside of buildings that you're striking, given the -- the difficulties that you're describing?
LT. GEN. TOWNSEND: I feel confident that we will do the absolute best -- job humanely possible. How -- how could I feel completely confident about it in the wake of the incident that we're discussing right now? So that would point out that it is impossible for us to know every time.
But I know this -- I'm not targeting civilians; ISIS is. And so we will do the best job we absolutely can to prevent this unnecessary loss of life. The best way though, to put an end to this human suffering, is to win in Mosul and win in Raqqa and do it fast. Over.
Q: Thank you.
CAPT. DAVIS: Next to Kasim Ileri with Anadolu News Agency.
Q: General, most of my questions are covered, but I will follow-up on Joe's question. You said that you don't foresee it federative Kurdish state in northern Syria because the Kurds constitute 10 percent of the population there.
But I don't think what -- you are unaware of what they are doing and what they are saying because they -- they have established cantons. They are saying -- they are trying to combine those -- those cantons and they are trying to keep them united down there. And every time they have a chance they are saying that they are moving toward a federative state down there.
But I couldn't, you know, what you said doesn't seem to be compatible with what they are doing down there. Could you -- could you square that circle for us? How -- have you told the -- have you told them or have you made them aware of what you are thinking? Or have they told anything to you privately other than what they are saying in public?
LT. GEN. TOWNSEND: OK. Thanks for your question, there, Kasim. Sounds like you have a bit of a political agenda there. Your question doesn't seem all that neutral to me. Sounds like you're trying to troop lead me to a particular answer.
But I'll tell you this, I have had private conversations with our Syrian Democratic Force partners and they include Kurds, they include Arabs and they include Turkmen. They include Christians, they include Muslims, they include people who don't have a particular religion.
So I've talked to their commanders. In fact, their commander for the Raqqa operation is an Arab born and raised in Tabqa. So, here's what I'm seeing. I'm seeing what is probably a pretty broad coalition of people and the Kurds may be providing the leadership, because they have -- they have a capable leader who's stepped up to this challenge. And they are providing some of the organizational skill, but I see a large contingent about 23 to 25, 000 so far and growing, Arabs, who are marching to liberate their part of northern Syria. So, I don't see a Kurdish state. I see a multi-cultural, multi-party, multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian Syrian region being liberated from ISIS. Over.
CAPT. DAVIS: Next, Laurie Mylroie, Kurdistan 24.
Q: If I could just ask you one brief question, and then a longer question. The brief question, you talked about neighborhoods in Mosul that supported Al-Qaida and now support ISIS. Could you tell us something about those neighborhoods?
LT. GEN. TOWNSEND: OK. Yep. So, you know, I think, probably every movement on the planet has sort of a well spring, home turf where they find some support, and there are a couple of neighborhoods. I was a brigade commander in Mosul, 10 years ago and interestingly enough, I just visited Mosul yesterday, yesterday or the day before, yesterday. I visited Mosul yesterday and talked to some commanders and listening to their, some Iraqi commanders and some coalition commanders, and I was listening to their advisors. And I was listening to their intelligence assessment and some -- some of the same neighborhoods were being mentioned that I dealt with as sources of support for Al-Qaida back in 2006. And now, those same neighborhoods are being mentioned as sources of support for ISIS.
So I think that any place you have disenfranchised people, who feel like they're not part of the larger effort, and so in this case I will say, that -- that these are largely Sunni neighborhoods, that are in the west side of Mosul and somewhere in the past here, the government of Iraq failed to connect to these people. Failed to make them feel like they were part of the larger Iraqi state. This is how movements like ISIS make traction and -- and make gains, only by finding support and terrorizing whoever doesn't support them, they terrorize. But they all -- there's always a well spring of support there, there has to be, for them to draw on.
And, so, I think what's important after ISIS is defeated, is the government of Iraq has to reach out to these groups of people and make sure they feel like they have a future in part, you know, in the Iraqi state. Because until that happens, you're always going to have a disenfranchised population that's always looking for the thing that will represent their interests better than whatever's currently ruling their life. Over.
Q: One. Yes. Moving to the future, would you say that the -- after ISIS is defeated, would you say that the fight against ISIS has changed the nature of the U.S. military's relations with the Kurdish fighters -- with the Peshmerga? Do you see, perhaps, a long term U.S. military presence in Iraqi Kurdistan?
LT. GEN. TOWNSEND: Has the -- has this war here, the fight against Daesh, changed the relationship? I think it has. I think it has changed the relationship. Well, in fact, from 2011 to 2014, there was basically no relationship between the Iraqi security forces, the Kurdish Peshmerga for that matter; the Syrian Democratic Forces, and the U.S. military -- there was little or no connection there to those forces.
There is one now. So I think, yes, the relationship has been changed. As far as a longer-term presence, I won't try to parse out Iraqi Kurdistan. I'll just say that it is my personal belief -- I don't know what our nation will decide -- but it is my personal belief that we walked away from Iraq a few years ago and we've already seen that movie.
So I would propose that we try to find a different solution. And I would propose -- my recommendation will be that we should stay here and try to continue to work with the Iraqi security forces and the government of Iraq. And I believe there's an appetite to do that in the broader coalition.
So, you know, I'll make that recommendation at some point to our chain of command here, what we will do after ISIS. But my personal view is that we should stay in Iraq.
CAPT. DAVIS: We promised we wouldn't keep you more than 45. We're at 45 now. Would you take one more?
Michael Gordon of the New York Times.
LT. GEN. TOWNSEND: One more for Michael.
Q: Thank you. I'll make it short.
General, this is to clarify an important issue that Missy Ryan raised in her question. The -- and also there have been media reports that Major General Al Saadi, an Iraqi special forces commander, said -- he said his men had called in the airstrike that caused the episode you're investigating in Mosul.
Are there any circumstances in which Iraqi commanders can call in American airstrikes? Or is this just a shorthand way of saying that they alerted an American JTACs or American personnel who somehow had eyes on and did their observation, independently confirmed it was a valid targets, and then called in an airstrike? You mentioned the procedures that decentralized, and that's how you're speeding up the strikes.
And what I'm trying to understand is, you know, how you're doing that. And I think I know the answer, but I'd like to hear it from you.
LT. GEN. TOWNSEND: Okay, Mike. So, I did see that quote, and in fact I know that Iraqi commander. He's very supportive of what we do here. And if you read the rest of what he said, you know, he basically said essentially a lot of what I said in my opening statement.
So, there are things we call ITACs -- Iraqi terminal air controllers. And we have trained and certified these Iraqis, mostly with the intent of calling in fire; calling for fire from Iraqi sources of firepower; Iraqi artillery; Iraqi attack helicopters; Iraqi fighters.
But we train them to the same standards -- or close to the same standard we train our own. They have to be able to speak English, and we train them to a standard that we would train one of our own terminal air controllers.
So, I think, and again, I haven't seen the results of the investigation, but those are out there. So if he said his guy was calling for fire, he could have been.
Now, how that works is they don't get -- they don't call directly to a U.S. fighter overhead, and suddenly the U.S. fighter is rolling in on their grid coordinate. They call our fire support system, as you alluded to. That's how that works.
So essentially, they call an American who's in the U.S. fire support system and they direct our attention to the target. And our system starts processing the target as it would any other target.
So, that's how that works. Is it conceivable that, you know, that they could do it? It is conceivable, but that's just not how it works right now. We really train -- are training these guys to call in fires from their own armed forces.
Q: Clarifying the same question, are you saying, please, that it's possible the ITACs called in the strike, but that any application of fire would have had to somehow been independently verified by an American JTACs either on the ground or in the command center? And have there been any further layers of review or restrictions placed on this ITACs process as a result of this episode?
LT. GEN. TOWNSEND: So, I don't care to go into it any farther, because again I don't even know for sure. I just told you we have these guys called ITACs. I don't know if there's an ITAC involved in this because we haven't concluded our investigation yet. So I saw the report in the paper where the Iraqi commander said, "my guys were calling that in." Maybe they were. Maybe they weren't.
I don't know. I haven't -- the investigation has not delved into that and has not reported out. So of course, we also haven't put any restrictions on ITACs because, as I've already told you, they don't call U.S. or coalition fighters directly. They call our U.S. fire support system and U.S. personnel are involved in the engagement decision.
CAPT. DAVIS: Okay. And sir, with that, I know we're out of time. Thank you very much for making the time to do this today. It was very important for the folks on this end to hear that. We look forward to hearing from you again soon.
LT. GEN. TOWNSEND: Yeah, I'd like to say something before we close it out here.
A little disappointing to me that all the questions were about our airstrikes and our process and our decisions. And it almost seems to me like it was completely lost on everybody, and I hope it's not lost in your reporting, what I said about who is killing innocents here in Iraq and Syria. If -- if these innocents were killed by the coalition, it was an unintentional accident of war.
And ISIS is slaughtering Iraqis and Syrians on a daily basis. ISIS is cutting off heads. ISIS is shooting people, throwing people form buildings, burning them alive in cases, and they're making a video record to prove it. This has got to stop. This evil has got to be stamped out.
And in my mind, all the responsibility for any civilian deaths, the moral responsibility for civilian deaths in Iraq and Syria belongs to ISIS.
I will close with that. Thanks.
CAPT. DAVIS: Thanks, general.