Department of Defense Press Briefing by Lt. Gen. Townsend Via Teleconference from Baghdad, Iraq
Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend, commander, Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve
CAPTAIN JEFF DAVIS: Good morning. Before we get started I just wanted to alert you at 12:30 we will be having an off-camera press briefing back in the press office with Deputy Press Secretary Gordon Trowbridge to discuss the California National Guard matter, so that's at 12:30.
We're pleased to be joined today by Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend, the commander of Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve. Joining us live from Baghdad.
General, I just want to make sure we can hear you and you can hear us.
LIEUTENANT GENERAL STEPHEN TOWNSEND: I hear you loud and clear. How do you hear me?
CAPT. DAVIS: Let's a get a little more volume here in the studio if we can.
And, sir, we'll turn it over to you for any opening remarks you had.
LIEUTENANT GENERAL STEPHEN TOWNSEND: Okay, thanks.
Good morning. It's evening here in Baghdad.
I appreciate this opportunity to offer a few thoughts on our campaign to defeat ISIL in Iraq and Syria. I'll start with an update on the progress of the Iraqi security forces and the support coalition troops are providing them in the ongoing fight for Mosul. Then I'll give you a short update on our developing plans to liberate Raqqah and Syria.
First, progress toward Mosul. The Iraqi security forces have developed a lot of momentum over the past two years. And now we're seeing that momentum continue against ISIL, our common enemy, in Mosul. The ISF are steadily advancing on multiple axes toward the city. The Mosul offensive is a large and extraordinarily complex operations that the Iraqis have been planning for a very long time. They're the ones making the decisions and their forces are the ones who will enter Mosul and raise the Iraqi flag in the center of the city.
We assisted them with the planning and preparation of forces and have provided advice and assistance such as air and artillery strikes and intelligence to support the Iraqi operations.
The coalition has delivered more than 2,100 aerial bombs, artillery and mortar shells, HIMARS rockets and Hellfire missiles since the Iraqis started operations to liberate Mosul on October 17th. This relentless campaign of strikes has removed hundreds of fighters, weapons, and key leaders from the battlefield in front of the Iraqi advance.
Our coalition leaders and advisers on the ground coordinate daily with Iraqi and Kurdish security forces to adjust our support, because we understand their forces are fighting every day for their very lives and their freedom from ISIL, also known as Daesh.
All of this support is in addition to the substantial investment in weapons, equipment and training the coalition has provided to the ISF to ensure they have what it takes to be successful.
A few days before Mosul operations began, I attended the Iraqis’ final operational briefing where each commander responsible for a different axis of advance provided their plan to the prime minister. I can tell you that it was clear to me that night that the sovereign nation of Iraq owns this fight. There's a lot of hard fighting ahead, but we're confident the Iraqis will be successful.
On behalf of the coalition, I want to recognize the heroic sacrifices of the Iraqi and Kurdish security forces and their martyrs and their families. It's good to see them pressing steadily forward on the battlefield and we will continue supporting them until Mosul and all of Iraq is free from ISIL.
Now, a bit on Syria. Our Syrian partners in Turkey continued advancing and pushed ISIL farther from Turkey's border. This is a complicated battle space, amid regional security concerns and adjacent to a civil war, and that makes for a complicated planning effort.
We're working with our allies, our partners, coalition members to refine the military plan for the isolation and eventual liberation of Raqqah. While that planning effort is ongoing, we will continue conducting precision strikes to reduce the enemy's freedom of movement, attack their leaders and command and control, and their ability to (inaudible) space is crowded and complicated.
We're finding that Daesh, with their brutal treatment of anyone who doesn't share their twisted ideology, is generating a willingness among local populations to fight them and drive them from their safe havens. This gives us confidence that ISIL will also be driven from Raqqah.
Our coalition is committed to their defeat because we understand that defeating them in Iraq and Syria is an essential step in the defeat of ISIL around the world.
In closing, I want to remind the people of the United States and of all the nations of the coalition, their troops in this region are serving selflessly and with great courage in harms way to ensure the defeat of ISIL. You should be proud of their efforts as you hope and pray for their success and safety. I am now -- I know that I am proud to stand in their ranks.
And with that, I'll take your questions.
CAPTAIN JEFF DAVIS: Sure.
We'll start with Bob Burns from the Associated Press.
Q: General Townsend, question for you about Raqqah, which you mentioned briefly there, and a little bit of what you said was broken up by the audio. But I wonder if you could describe in some detail the main ways in which a Raqqah operation will be different than the Mosul operation?
LT. GEN. TOWNSEND: OK, Bob. I think I understood your question there.
So the main ways that Raqqah will be different than the Mosul operation. OK, so the first big difference is it will be in Syria rather than in Iraq. That's pretty obvious.
I think secondly, it's going to be with a partnered force rather than the partner being a nation-state's armed forces like the Iraqi armed forces. It's going to be our partners, our local partners in northern Syria. So that's probably a big difference.
It's also going to be done with a lot lighter coalition footprint. We'll have fewer coalition troops there, less combat capability there. We'll have to apply coalition combat support in a different way than we're doing here in Iraq.
And then, as I alluded to in my opening comments, which you may not have heard, it's a very complicated battle space.
Like I said, it's -- there are a lot of regional security concerns that are in competition there. And the Syrian regime's involved, the Russians are involved, Turkey's involved. It's hard. And there's -- oh by the way, there's a civil war going on right next door.
So it's gonna be a tough -- very tough political environment and a security environment, I think, for our effort there.
Q: (inaudible) on whether it's like to be a longer operation given that it's a smaller -- I believe it's a smaller geographic area will take longer to accomplish than Mosul?
LT. GEN. TOWNSEND: OK. I think I see what you're talking about with the audio connection.
Is that Bob Burns with a follow-up? All I heard was smaller geographic area than Mosul. Could you say that again, the rest of the question please?
Q: Yes. General, this is Bob Burns again. And I was asking you if you would be able to describe in terms of the difference with Mosul, whether Raqqah is likely to take longer to accomplish?
LT. GEN. TOWNSEND: Yeah, I probably don't want to commit to any timelines, Bob. I would think that because of all the complicating factors that I mentioned earlier, the ultimate liberation of Raqqah will probably take longer than Mosul, would be my guess. We're planning to do in stages to isolate Raqqah first, followed by an eventual seizure to liberate Raqqah.
But it's probably fair to say with the complexity and the fact that we haven't really got it underway yet that it'll probably take longer than Mosul.
Q: Thank you.
CAPT. DAVIS: Next, we'll go to Tom Bowman with National Public Radio.
Q: Hey general, staying on Raqqah for a second, we've been told for quite some time now that there aren't enough local forces to take Raqqah. Has that changed? Do you now have sufficient local forces? Or before you move with this Raqqah operation, you're gonna still have to recruit, train and equip more local forces? That's one question.
The other is on Mosul. You and others have repeatedly said that the Iraqi security forces are on schedule to have the momentum. I'm just wondering, from your perspective, what keeps you up at night when you look at the Mosul operation? Is it, you know, possible political troubles with Turkey, with the Shia Militias? Is it a humanitarian catastrophe with more than a million people in the city? Or is it just getting bogged down -- the Iraqi forces getting bogged down in urban fighting? Or is it all of the above?
LT. GEN. TOWNSEND: OK. Thanks, Tom.
So on Raqqah, I believe that there are sufficient local forces already available for that operation. However, we have a plan to do, as you suggested, recruit and equip and train more local forces for that operation. So that's part of our campaign plan to generate additional combat power for that future operation.
On your second question regarding Mosul and what keeps me up at night, quite honestly, I'm so exhausted that nothing keeps me up at night. But if there were something that were to keep me up at night, it would probably be all of the above -- all the things that you just answered, all those things you just mentioned.
Q: I have one more. Of those three, which is your most concerning?
LT. GEN. TOWNSEND: I think the -- you know, of course, I'm concerned just like any commander would be, and now technically, I'm not the commander of the Mosul operation. There's an Iraqi commanding general in charge of the Mosul operation. But as the commander of the coalition supporting effort here, just like any commander, I'm always concerned that we've applied enough combat power, that we've anticipated the contingencies, we've figured out in advance what the enemy might do, and we've got plans for that.
So, I'm concerned about all of that. And I think we've anticipated that, and it doesn't really keep me up at night. The thing that probably -- probably deserves more of our attention than anything else in the coming days is what does the security situation look like in the aftermath of the liberation of Mosul, and what does the political situation look like in the aftermath of the liberation of Mosul.
And quite honestly, the Iraqis are working on those -- those problems. And there is a political process, you know, talks under way to figure out. They've got an overarching plan and how to make that plan as good as it can be. But that's probably -- the aftermath is probably the thing that would trouble me the most.
CAPT. DAVIS: Next we'll go to Barbara Starr with CNN.
Q: (off mic) Townsend, a number of questions, if I might here. Can you help us understand why specifically a lighter footprint for the Raqqah operation? What makes you think Turkey and Russia won't cause you trouble over this? And this force that you're talking about training, should we assume you believe -- you -- that this would be a non-Kurdish force?
So can you expand on all of this a bit more?
LT. GEN. TOWNSEND: OK. Barbara, I think I got your questions. So why a lighter footprint? And then I think your second question was sort of the composition of the force that we would -- partner force that we would employ.
So, the first question, why a lighter footprint. Mainly because we don't have a good presence, an existing presence in Syria, northern Syria. All those complicating factors that I mentioned earlier. So here we have developed bases that we've used before; existing relationships with the government. We have a lot of government of Iraq support for our presence here. So it's considerably more robust than it is in Syria.
We're also trying to keep a footprint that's very light there and to avoid worsening any of the complicating pre-existing conditions that I mentioned earlier when I talked about Syria. So we're just trying to do it with a very light footprint and it's pretty deliberate.
I have no doubt that we'll apply the right amount of coalition support to the effort there. And if at some point we decide that more is required, I'll flag that up to my superiors and they'll decide what we'll do. This, as -- to your second question, which I thought I heard had to do with the composition of the force.
So there's a force there called the Syrian Democratic Forces, SDF. They have an Arab wing which we refer to as the Syrian Arab Corps. That force is fairly robust, over 30,000. And a good portion of them are Kurdish forces, Syrian Kurds. But also, another part of that force is -- a significant part of that force is Arabs and other ethnic groups that are from that region.
So we will train the forces that we need. And specifically, we're going to try to recruit and train a force that's from the local area of Raqqa. So that's what's made our -- one of the factors that's made our efforts in Northern Syria successful to date, is we have recruited, in each case -- and Manbij is a good example of this -- we've recruited forces from the local area that were part of the assault force to liberate that area. And they form the core of the whole force that will stay.
So in Manbij there was a military formation known as the Manbij Military Council. It was part of the SDF formation that marched across Northern Syria, that laid siege to Manbij, that assaulted Manbij and liberated Manbij. Now the Manbij military council has secured the Manbij pocket --- the securing -- the -- the SDF or Syrian Democratic Forces, have largely withdrawn from the Manbij pocket. And the Manbij Military Council has stood up the Manbij Civilian Council to govern there while they provide security. So we're going to try to follow that model for Raqqa. That will take a lot of effort and take a bit of time.
CAPT. DAVIS: Yes?
Q: Does this mean, General Townsend, when you say recruit and train from the Raqqah area, that you will be having U.S. forces in the Raqqah area to do that training? Will that training take place inside Syria near Raqqa, as I think you're suggesting?
LT. GEN. TOWNSEND: Well, I think actually most the recruiting will be done not by us, but it will be done by our local partners. They're quite capable of doing this and there's a -- there's really -- we haven't found a shortage of volunteers who want to go fight ISIL or Daesh, as we refer to them. There's no shortage of folks who want to do that, especially if they're going back to liberate their own home town.
So the local forces will do most of that recruiting. We'll help them. They're -- they're actually quite capable of running their own training. They run what we would call basic training -- basic combat training, they do that themselves.
We actually only assist with specialty courses, weapons, leadership courses, those kind of things. And I don't think that training will be done in the vicinity of Raqqah. Probably most of these folks will be recruited by their means, and moved or told to meet at an offset training location in northern Syria.
CAPT. DAVIS: OK. Next, we'll go to Idrees Ali with Reuters.
Q: Thank you, general.
You described the -- the sort of isolation of Raqqah is going to be complicated. One complication would be sort of this Turkish and Turkey YPG sort of dynamic. Turkey has said they would not like the Kurds or the YPG to take part in this. But obviously, they're part of the SDF. So, how are you gonna sort of balance that factor?
And -- and is the YPG going to take part in this or is Turkey gonna take part in this? Because it sounds like it's either/or from their end.
LT. GEN. TOWNSEND: OK. That's a tough one. I would use my out and say that our connection is garbled, but the truth is I heard the question.
OK. So how are we going to thread that needle with Raqqah, with the SDF and -- and our NATO allies, Turkey? As you correctly laid out the problem there, Turkey doesn't want to see us operating with the SDF anywhere, particularly in Raqqah.
So, the facts are these. The only force that is capable on any near frame -- near-term timeline is -- are the Syrian Democratic Forces, of which the YPG are a significant portion. So, we're negotiating, we're planning, we're having talks with Turkey and we're gonna take this in steps. And we think there's an imperative to get isolation in place around Raqqah because our intelligence feeds tell us that there is significant external operations attacks planning going on, emanating central in -- centralized in Raqqah.
So, we think it's very important to get isolation in place around Raqqah to start controlling that environment on a pretty short timeline. So, we're gonna take the force that we have and it will -- we will go to Raqqah soon with that force. And I think that the Syrian Democratic Forces, to include the Kurdish YPG and the Arab -- Syrian Arab Corps, will all be part of that force to go and place isolation at Raqqah.
What happens after that is still to be determined between our government, our local partners and Turkish government. And I don't know how that will work out. The Turks have expressed an interest to be involved in that. And we'll -- we'll work through that later. But I think that we'll move soon to isolate Raqqah with the forces that are ready to go soon.
Q: When you say soon, you mean a few weeks?
LT. GEN. TOWNSEND: I mean soon. This -- the enemy's listening to this broadcast I'm assuming. So, I'm not gonna talk about timelines.
CAPT. DAVIS: OK, next we'll go with Kasim Ileri of Anadolu.
I look follow up Idrees’ question. You said there are discussions about including of Turkey in this Raqqah operation. Militarily, do you think that there are disadvantages of including Turkey with about force in Raqqah operation?
LT. GEN. TOWNSEND: OK, I had a hard time following that. I heard it, I know it had something to do with Turkey and Raqqah and operation, but I couldn't quite get the gist of your question. Could you please ask that again?
Q: So Turkey has long been saying that they want to be involved in Raqqah operation with their ground forces and all other efforts. But militarily -- according to you -- are there disadvantages of including Turkish armed forces in Raqqah operation?
LT. GEN. TOWNSEND: I think -- so yes. Turkey has expressed a desire to be involved in that operation, and because of the time imperative that I talked about a moment ago, I think we need to go pretty soon. And I think that we'll go with the forces that can go on the timeline that we need. We're willing to entertain any partner, not Turkey or anyone else, who is willing to go down to help liberate Raqqah from ISIL.
That's any partner that's willing to join the coalition and be a part of the coalition to take the fight to Raqqa. We're willing to take -- there'll be advantages to taking any partner down there.
Q: On Sinjar. We know that PKK wants to involve in fight against Daesh around Sinjar. Do you think that it's going to make it easier for the coalition to drive ISIL out of Sinjar area if PKK take role or take the fight over there?
LT. GEN. TOWNSEND: OK. Yes, I've heard reports of PKK being located out in the Sinjar area. That's a bit downstream from what we're working on right now, which is Mosul. There are facts -- if they're there, then it's not clear to me how many are there and what exactly they're doing although I know that they were part of the force that kept Daesh, or ISIL, out in 2014 and liberated the Yazidis in the Sinjar region. So I think they're -- if they're there, they're a fact of life on the ground and we're going to have to work in and around them when eventually the Iraqi security forces go to Sinjar. But I think actually -- you know, the force that's really going to liberate Sinjar is going to the be the Iraqi security forces and they'll probably take help from whoever's out there and then folks who are supposed to be there will be welcomed back in to take up their homes again and folks who aren't from there will probably be asked to leave, whoever they are.
CAPT. DAVIS: Next we'll go with Joe Tabet of Al Hurra.
Q: Let me -- let me ask you this -- you just said that Turkey doesn't want us to deal with the SDF and you highlighted the role of the SDF in fighting ISIS. Is it -- is it fair to say that you, the coalition and Turkey, are not on the same page when it comes to the upcoming operation in Raqqah?
LT. GEN. TOWNSEND: Well, the coalition's pretty big, 60-plus nations, it varies here and there. And pretty diverse views about how to prosecute the campaign. And we listen to all of those, take in all those views, and then we eventually make a determination how we're gonna proceed. And I'm sure that there are members of the coalition who concur with whatever those decisions and plans are and there's probably members of the coalition who don't.
So we take everybody's advice into consideration and then we decide what the coalition needs to do to defeat Daesh in Iraq and Syria. So that's what we're doing.
Q: Yeah. Let me -- let me -- let me re-ask you the question in a different way. When I said the coalition, I meant -- when we talk about the coalition, we mean the United States.
So my question is, given what you said about Turkey -- about Turkey's demands, is it fair to say that the United States and Turkey are not on the same page when it comes to the upcoming operation in Raqqah? And I have a follow-up, please.
LT. GEN. TOWNSEND: OK. Yeah, I knew what you meant.
I'm not gonna say it's fair to say that. I will say that we may have differences of opinion about how to prosecute this operation that are coming up. And the coalition is arriving at a decision about how we're gonna prosecute the operation. We're gonna go with who can go, who's willing to go soon. And then we'll -- once we get initial isolation in position, we'll -- we'll look at how we prosecute the operation further.
Q: Turkey's defense minister just announced that Turkish fighter jets are ready to take part of the Mosul operation, but he asked the Iraqi government to keep the PMF outside Mosul. What's your comment on that?
LT. GEN. TOWNSEND: OK. I think I heard most of that. So Turkish fighter jets in Mosul. So we welcome -- as I said before, we welcome any nation that wants to join the coalition, follow coalition rules, procedures and direction about the execution of the campaign. And we welcome -- and that have the approval of the government of Iraq. Every nation that's operating in Iraq today that's part of the coalition has had approval by the government of Iraq to do that.
So if Turkey or any other country meets all those requirements, they'll be welcome to join and participate.
Then I didn't quite catch the last -- I heard an acronym but I wasn't -- I didn't really follow the last part of your question.
Q: Yeah the question was, the -- the Turkish defense minister asked the Iraqi government to keep the PMF out of the Mosul operation. Do you have any -- anything to say on that?
LT. GEN. TOWNSEND: Yeah so there are -- the PMF are pretty a variety of folks. There are Shia-dominated PMF groups. There are Syrian -- or I'm sorry, Sunni-dominated PMF groups.
There are Christian groups and other smaller, ethnic groups of PMF out there. And the operative kind of guidance that the government of Iraq has been operating on is to not send any group of PMF to Mosul that would not be welcomed by the inhabitants, the residents, there.
So their plan does employ PMF in Mosul. But all of those groups are -- consist of local fighters who are returning to Ninewa Province and Mosul City. So they're predominately Sunni.
There are also some Christian and some other groups, small numbers of those, small groups. There aren't many Shia groups but there are some. The other groups are being assigned to tasks that are supporting the larger operation.
And this is all the decision of the government of Iraq. Getting to the point that one of you asked me you know, about what keeps me up at night. It’s got to do with the -- you know, the -- kind of the acceptance of this liberation and the follow-on political situation solution that's in place in Mosul after the liberation.
So if the Iraqis are more in tune to this than we are and so they've decided what groups are going into Mosul and what groups aren't going into Mosul and they were aware of Turkish concerns and other folks’ concerns.
A lot -- there have been plenty of voices from outside that have made their concerns known about what group should be where. And the government of Iraq is figuring this out and making the decisions.
And so far, I think they're pretty good ones.
CAPT. DAVIS: Tolga Tanis of Hurriyet.
Q: Thank you, General Townsend.
About this upcoming operation in Raqqah, there are ongoing clashes between Turkish military and the YPG forces in Afrin (inaudible).
And also, the Turkish president said to today if YPG doesn't withdraw from Manbij, the Turkish military will force them to withdraw from Manbij. So given the fact that during the siege in Manbij, YPG lost at least 800 militants according to the U.S. sources.
And given the fact that there are ongoing clashes between Turkish military and YPG in Afrin, are they (inaudible) to join this Raqqah operation without condition?
LT. GEN. TOWNSEND: OK I think I actually followed almost all of that except the last little bit. All of your preamble I got, I didn't get -- quite get the question. Say the question again.
Q: Question, do you believe that YPG will join the Raqqa cooperation easily while there are ongoing clashes with Turkish military and while Turkish President said that YPG must withdraw from Manbij.
Are they ready to join this Raqqa cooperation do you think?
LT. GEN. TOWNSEND: OK. I think I got the question.
So yes, we've seen in recent days we've seen Turkish Air Force strikes on the Afrin Kurds, and we've seen Turkish artillery strikes on the Afrin Kurds.
We don't think that -- remember in my opening remarks when I said this is a very complicated battle space with competing security agendas in the region and adjacent to a civil war? All of these things come together right there between Turkey and Manbij and Afrin and Aleppo and that area. All of these things overlap right there. It's extraordinarily difficult.
So we just kind of point out when members of the coalition aren't engaging Daesh, they're doing other activities, that's not helpful for the coalition. It's not part of the coalition. And we ask members of the coalition to refrain from undertaking activities that are not focused on the defeat of Daesh.
And as I said before, we're willing to march South with anybody -- to Raqqah -- with anybody who's willing to join the coalition, follow the direction that the coalition's taking and to go defeat Daesh in Raqqah and start that pretty soon.
Q: Follow up sir, just to be -- I mean are you concerned about any fight between Turkish military and YPG in Manbij? And if it happens, can YPG join the Raqqa cooperation?
LT. GEN. TOWNSEND: OK. So we haven't seen since late August I think, Turkish strikes against the Manbij pocket. That area has been liberated from ISIL and it's been turned over to local inhabitants who are securing it and governing it. Which I think is the right solution. No Daesh, local security, local governance. That seems to me like what anybody in the region would want to see happen.
We also have coalition forces that are there with them, because ISIL is nearby. And they're there to keep ISIL from -- help the local security forces -- our local partners there -- from losing control of the Manbij area. We've, we're talking to Turkey every day about what we're doing there. Those are good productive talks. The Turks have not fired into the Manbij pocket since the end of August when our efforts to push ISIL out of there converged.
They were pursuing ISIL South from their border and we were pursuing ISIL Westward around Manbij and Northward, and those forces -- those pursuits converged there and we had some tense moments there until it got settled.
Since late August, early September, there's been pretty low friction between Turkey and the Manbij FLOT. And we'd like to see that continue.
CAPT. DAVIS: Luis Martinez with ABC News.
Q: Hi general.
Earlier you mentioned the term "imperative" a couple of times to describe the operation towards Raqqa, particularly with respect to external operations planning. What are you describing there, are you -- is there something that's imminent that in terms of those external operations that you need to prevent?
Is there something that you can do in the lead up to the actual encirclement of Raqqah that can be done to prevent these external operations that you seem to be describing?
LT. GEN. TOWNSEND: Well, I don't want to characterize the intelligence too much in this unclassified and public forum. I will say that we actually aren't sure how pressing it is, and that's what's worrying us. So we're not sure, we know they're up to something. And its an external plot, we don't know exactly where, we don't know exactly when. You can understand this because you've been following these kinds of terrorist plots for a number of years, and we're gonna try to head it off.
So what we're doing right now is a pretty much continuous watch and strikes in the Raqqah area when targets emerge that we can strike. And so we're gonna do those kinds of suppressive fires until we're ready to amount -- to mount and approach and in isolation of Raqqa.
But there's -- I think, a sense of urgency about what we have to do here because we're just not sure what they're up to, and where, and when. But we know that this plot planning is emanating from Raqqa. Not unlike it emanated from Manbij before the fall of Manbij, the liberation of Manbij. So we think we gotta get to Raqqah pretty soon, and until we can get down there, we're doing a pretty significant set of suppressive fires that are ongoing and continuous.
Q: Follow-up on that, sir.
When -- does this mean that you've accelerated your timeline for the encirclement of Raqqa? And also, Raqqah -- though it's the hub for these kind of operations, it typically means that they have personnel already in place somewhere else. By taking out the center how does this affect the planning if it -- individuals may already be overseas?
LT. GEN. TOWNSEND: I think -- I didn't quite get the second part of the question, I got the first part. Did we accelerate our timeline for Raqqa? I'll go ahead and answer that and then you can -- if I didn't get that right, you can restate it and you can state your second part of your question which I didn't make out.
So did we accelerate our timeline for Raqqa? No, I'm not sure that we did accelerate it. So since I arrived a little more than two months ago to take command of the CJTF, we've had a broad plan to pressure Mosul and Raqqah simultaneously, or nearly so. Probably a better description would be overlapping. So we -- we're pressuring Mosul now in a fairly significant way that you're seeing play out in the news every day.
And now we want to pressure Raqqah so that the enemy doesn't have a convenient place to go. He's got other places to go but he's gotta make some choices that maybe weren't his first or second choices.
So that's really been our plan all along, and we're still moving forward with that plan. Like I said, not really overlapping pressure on both of those two nodes. So I wouldn't say that we particularly accelerated our timeline.
But if you could ask -- I don't know if I got the first part of the question right or not, and if you would ask the second part of the question right or not. And then, if you would ask the second part of your question which I couldn't hear.
Q: Thank you, sir. You did get the first part right. The second half has to do with -- you talked about -- outside of Iraq and Syria, can you elaborate on that? Outside of Iraq and Syria, can you elaborate on that?
And if you go into Raqqah which is the hub for external planning, how do you affect a plot that may already be in the works of personnel who would carry out those plots overseas?
LT. GEN. TOWNSEND: OK, so I won't talk -- again, not real clear but I think I got it. I won't try to characterize ISIL's activities outside of Iraq and Syria because I don't -- that's not my -- that's not my lane.
And so I don't pay that much attention to it. I focus on Iraq and Syria. We know that there's external plotting and for example, in Manbij, coming out of Manbij, we found links to individuals and plot streams to France, the United States, other European countries.
So we know that this is going on in Raqqah, as well. And so I think that's why its necessary to get down there to Raqqah. We know that it's a -- a focal point of ISIL external operations, planning, plotting.
Its their capital, that's another reason why its important to get down there soon to take away the physical part of their so-called Caliphate. You know, so that's why we want to get down there.
External operations plus it's the capital of the Caliphate. And again, sorry if I didn't get your whole question right.
CAPT. DAVIS: Let's go to Lucas Tomlinson with Fox News.
Q: General, what can you tell us about fighters moving between Syria and Iraq, particularly for Mosul, leaving Mosul going to Syria or vice versa, fighters going from Syrian reinforcing Mosul.
LT. GEN. TOWNSEND: Sure, there are fighters moving around in ISIL controlled territory. They're been -- they've been doing that for the last two years, they're still doing that. What we're generally sensing is they're trying to insert -- so we don't have a complete encirclement of Mosul.
That's not necessary to prosecute the assault on Mosul to liberate it from ISIL. So the enemy has a way in and a way out. And he's doing some movement of fighters, we're not seeing large movement in or large movement out.
We are detecting some movement and some of that movement is pre -- before -- existing before the attack began, before our attack began. So I think he's probably sending some reinforcements and messages and supplies in and he's moving key leaders out. And we've seen him move some family members out. Which I think is probably an indicator of how he thinks Mosul's going to go when he's moving family members out. I think that's what you were asking me about, to characterize the movement in and out.
Q: Is the coalition trying to strike these fighters moving in and out and some of these maybe families as well?
LT. GEN. TOWNSEND: Yes when we can identify ISIL fighters, we strike them. We generally don't when we see a car full of women and children. We don't. It's hard; sometimes it's hard to see inside of a car. So they've gotten pretty savvy since Fallujah when we saw entire columns, convoys of ISIL fighters trying to leave in open trucks and technical vehicles in the column, weapons and ISIL flags flying.
They learned from that experience and they're moving in a more discrete way now. But we're looking. And we're listening. And when we see ISIL fighters moving there, we'll strike them.
Q: Despite the airstrikes inside Mosul since the start of the operation according to the coalition, does that take away from the efforts in Syria? It appears that some of the strikes in Syria have gone down since the start of the Mosul operation. So my question is, is this surge of airstrikes in Mosul taking away from strikes inside Syria?
LT. GEN. TOWNSEND: So any commander who's pursuing operation designates a main effort and their supporting efforts. And the purpose of that is to allow the commander and subordinate commanders to know what's the most important thing we're doing today. We might be doing several things today, but there's always a most important thing. And that important thing is usually weighted with the weight of effort of the enablers and our combat power.
So we're doing a supporting operation, we're not conducting the attack on Mosul. But we're supporting the Iraqi's attack on Mosul. So there's a whole coalition supporting operation that's behind and backstopping the Iraqi operation. So that's our operation.
And for operation I've designated Mosul as the main effort. And so accordingly, I'm pressing the weight of resources to make sure the main effort is successful. So what that means is other efforts will get by with some less. They'll still get enough to get their job done. But we're going to press the main effort. You can't defend or attack everywhere at once. To be successful you've got to weight that main effort and that's what we're doing.
CAPT. DAVIS: We'll go to Corey Dickstein with Stars and Stripes.
Q: Thank you, sir.
You mentioned that the complete encirclement of Mosul wasn't necessary. But for the Raqqah fight, will you have to completely encircle it? And then continuing on that, do you expect a similar you know, kind of defensive strategy from ISIL for Raqqah with suicide attacks, IEDs outside and then a harder urban fight in the city center?
LT. GEN. TOWNSEND: OK. So -- now, I don't really want to characterize our plan for the assault -- the isolation and then subsequent assault on Raqqah. We'll make decisions -- actually, Syrian commanders will make decisions about what needs to be done there to completely encircle, to partially encircle and to attack from this direction or attack from that direction. They'll make those decisions. We're -- we haven't reached that stage of the planning with them yet.
Then, do I expect to see the same kind of fight as we're seeing in Mosul? Yes, I would think so. We're seeing ISIL, Daesh, fighting very hard, pretty stuff resistance. He's got an external disruption zone. We expect a very hard defense in-depth, in the center of the city probably. That's probably similar to how I would defend the city, so I think it's probably how they will defend -- and they've pulled out no -- you know, they've pulled out all stops.
As you mentioned, suicide bombers and indirect fire, rockets and mortars and VBIEDs and all of that. I think they'll do the same thing -- similar to that in Raqqah.
Q: (off mic). I know you guys don't want to talk about where U.S. forces are in Syria, but can you talk at all about what role, as advisers, they'll have in that effort? Will they move down toward Raqqah with -- with SDF?
LT. GEN. TOWNSEND: So you're right, I won't talk about locations of our -- of our folks in Syria. We have folks there. The roles they perform; they equip, they train some of the partner force. We do that at various locations. And we have advise/assist teams that will accompany the partner force wherever they go to defeat Daesh.
CAPT. DAVIS: Andrew Tilghman from Military Times.
Q: General, following on that thought about the force -- the U.S. force in Syria, you've described a level of urgency about the Raqqah operation. And I know you don't have any troop announcements to make today, but I'd like to ask your thoughts on the U.S. presence there.
Do you -- would more U.S. troops in Syria be helpful? Is that under active consideration? Or do you think that that's unlikely because of the complex nature of the battlefield? What is your thinking on that?
LT. GEN. TOWNSEND: I think my leaders will ensure we have the right resources. There are -- my leadership is from -- from General Votel at Central Command, the chairman and the secretary of defense in the Pentagon and the commander-in-chief. They listen to our requirements and requests, and they're responsive to them.
So we'll have what we need to get the job done in Raqqah.
CAPT. DAVIS: Next to Tony Capaccio with Bloomberg.
Q: Sir, I had a couple of questions. There's been a lot of publicity recently about ISIL's use of drones, either armed or unarmed, for ISR. Can you put that in perspective? Have you seen a great deal of use or is it just episodic onesies and twosies? And what is your capability with existing electronic warfare systems to defeat them?
And then I had a follow up on a different subject.
LT. GEN. TOWNSEND: OK, I think I heard your question fairly clearly. It was about ISIL's use of drones, or remotely piloted vehicles, or unmanned aerial systems -- we'll call them drones for short. So, the ISIL makes extensive use of drones. It's not episodic or sporadic. It's relatively constant and creative.
So we've seen them use them mostly for reconnaissance and surveillance; the same way we use drones. We have detected them using them for fire direction in the past. By that, I mean to control and adjust the indirect fires that they're shooting at the -- our partner forces and at us.
More recently, they've gotten a bit more creative and they have dropped small explosive devices into our partner force positions. Those haven't had, fortunately haven't had a great effect. Excuse me. And recently we saw an example of a Trojan horse, we think, UAV or drone where it was landed in our partner forces lines.
They thought they had good fortune, they had captured an enemy drone. And when they went to collect it and bring it into their lines for examination, it exploded and created casualties. And so, we expect to see more of this. We've put out procedures to our formation to be on guard for this.
And our government is working really hard to come up with solutions. So, we have solutions ranging from electronic attack like you suggested to kinetic kills with small arms fire. And we've downed a number of drones by a number of different means. All of them with varying degrees of success.
Our government has recently fielded several systems, very high priority fielding programs. Other coalition partners are also fielding their programs here in concert with ours. And we're going to try them out here in the field to see how well they work. And we have solutions right now that can work and we're trying to find better solutions for this pretty thorny problem.
Q: Different subject. The expeditionary targeting force -- the special operations force that Secretary Carter announced last year, what role is it having in the shape on the Mosul operations and potentially for Raqqa? Would they be conducting simultaneous if not separate from Iraqi Security Force operations to kill ISIL personnel?
Yes, so that's a fairly sensitive special operations force that we have here. And I'm not going to go into great detail about what they do. Suffice it to say that they're -- we have such a force and it's pressing the fight on the enemy and I like it very much.
CAPT. DAVIS: We are -- no, I don't have time for follow ups.
Last one, sir, I know we're out of time. But Paul Sonne, I promise that's the last.
Q: Sir, thanks for doing this.
Back to this question of Turkish involvement in Raqqa. Is it your assessment that if Turkey has extensive involvement in the campaign to retake Raqqah that that would provoke some sort of response from Russia or the Assad regime? That there are maybe worries that Turkey moving further into Syria than it already has could complicate the battle for Raqqah vis-a-vis Russia or the Syrian government?
LT. GEN. TOWNSEND: OK. I think I got the gist of your question. It wasn't completely clear, but it had to do with Turkey's involvement in the Raqqah operation, I think the Syrian regimes response to that. I don't know -- I hadn't really thought that through like that. I just know that right now Syria seems to have their hands full. And so it's necessary for our coalition to move about inside Syria to defeat Daesh-ISIL because it poses a threat to Syria, Iraq, the region, and our own nations.
So like I said, we'll welcome any contributing nation that wants to make themselves part of the coalition to go fight Daesh in Syria. But that -- join the coalition has to come with not -- can't just come with a whole bunch of strings. They got to be willing to go do what the coalition needs done. We try to employ coalition contributions whether they be troops or capabilities, we try to always, we employ them within the bounds of the wishes of their government.
Once we set out what that arrangement is, then the coalition employs those capabilities. So we'll use whoever wants to go do that, fight Daesh in Raqqa, that's a tough place, probably won't be a very long list. And I would imagine Syria probably isn't thrilled with any of us there doing that. But it's necessary to do.
CAPT. DAVIS: I'm sorry we've gone over time. Appreciate your time today in briefing us. And we look forward to seeing you again soon.
LT. GEN. TOWNSEND: OK. Thanks a lot. Thanks for listening.