With ISIS nearly defeated on the battlefield, the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition has shifted its focus in Iraq from enabling the Iraqi military’s combat operations to maintaining those gains as ISIS becomes an insurgency. The move will lead to a realignment of some of the 5,600 U.S. forces in Iraq as they become an “enduring presence” in that country.
“The Coalition will tailor our forces in consultation with our Iraqi partners in order to ensure the lasting defeat of Daesh,” said Brig. Gen. Jonathan Braga, the coalition’s director of operations, referring to the Arabic acronym for ISIS.
The coalition estimates that ISIS has lost 98 percent of the territory in Iraq and Syria it once controlled as part of its self-declared caliphate. A few thousand ISIS fighters remain in the eastern desert of Syria, where they continue fighting against U.S.-backed Kurdish and Arab forces.
While defeated on the battlefield, U.S. military planners have expected ISIS to switch to insurgent tactics, carrying out high-profile terror attacks in Iraq.
“We’re clear the enemy is still capable of offensive action and retains the ability to plan and inspire attacks worldwide,” said Braga.
He added that although the coalition’s “force composition may change over time to ensure we have the best forces on hand for the task, we will retain an appropriate amount of capabilities as well as an advisory presence to continue training, advising and equipping our partners in the continued fight against Daesh, all with the approval of the Government of Iraq.”
“Our enduring presence as invited guests in Iraq will shift to focus more on policing, border control and military capacity building. We will sustain the successful momentum and enhance the capacities of the Iraqi Security Forces in pursuing Daesh, now and in the future,” said Braga.
According to a coalition press release, the enduring U.S. military presence in Iraq will be conditions-based and “proportional to the need and in coordination with the government of Iraq.”
The statement did not disclose if the realignment of U.S. personnel might lead to a future troop reduction though an Iraqi official told The Associated Press that U.S. troop levels could be reduced by 60 percent.
U.S. military personnel records made public last fall indicated that there may have been as many as 9,000 American troops in Iraq assisting with the advise-and-assist mission with the Iraqi military.
Despite that information, the U.S. military cites the official number of U.S. troops in Iraq as approximately 5,262.
One example of how the U.S. mission in Iraq is already transitioning is the changing role of how the U.S. Air Force is helping the Iraqi military. As fewer coalition airstrikes are being conducted in Iraq the Air Force is establishing small training teams designed to support the Iraqi Air Force as it assumes the bulk of air missions in Iraq.