WASHINGTON -- Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Army Lt. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, commanding general of Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve, updated reporters Sunday on operations in Iraq and Syria during a news conference in Irbil, Iraq.
On this week's international trip, Carter is visiting Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, France and Belgium to meet with key partners in the campaign to deliver the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant a lasting defeat. He is also scheduled to participate in the fifth NATO defense ministerial conference of his tenure as defense secretary.
In Irbil, Carter met with troops, praising them for excellent work in the current phase of the military campaign supporting Iraqi security forces in their battle to liberate the city of Mosul from ISIL control.
"That plan in this phase starting just a few days ago calls for the envelopment and capture of the city of Mosul, the second-largest city in Iraq and one that was captured by ISIL," Carter told reporters. "That battle has begun, and … it's proceeding on plan."
The secretary met earlier that day with Masoud Barzani, president of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region since 2005, congratulating him and his forces on their critical role in carrying out the Mosul campaign.
Carter also visited the joint operations center in Irbil, where coalition members are working with Iraqis and Kurdish peshmerga forces and coalition forces.
"They are not only working here in Iraq but also in Syria," he said, "as we plan and then carry out support of operations there, including the envelopment of Raqqa, the would-be capital of the would-be caliphate."
In his remarks, Townsend said he had received a preliminary report from Barzani about considerable success by the Kurdish peshmerga in a fight at Bashiqa, a city in the Mosul district of northern Iraq.
"If you think about Mosul as a hard center and then a softer middle and then a very hard crust," the general said, "Bashiqa is one of those villages that ISIL has emptied of civilians and fortified for the past two years. We think it's heavily [booby-trapped with improvised explosive devices], probably tunneled as well [and] very fortified."
When forces punch through the hard crust, Townsend added, that will be the next phase of the approach.
"We're still on the approach -- the isolation, choking down the cordon around Mosul and getting through that hard external crust," he explained. "Bashiqa is a part of that hard external crust."
Townsend addressed recent ISIL attacks at the Iraqi town of Rutbah in western Anbar province and the city of Kirkuk in northern Iraq.
"We know, and the Iraqi security forces know, and the government of Iraq is expecting spoiling attacks [by ISIL] to try to draw our attention from Mosul," he said. "The government of Iraq is handling [the complex attack at Rutbah] without a lot of coalition assistance, and that's necessary so they can keep their eye on the main objective here in Mosul."
On targeting high-value members of the ISIL leadership, Carter said such external operations are the coalition's highest priority.
"We are getting better and better at that, … [and] it helps in several ways," he added, noting that the coalition is collecting more information about how ISIL operates and, with that, will come new opportunities to attack external plotters.
As the terrorist army is squeezed down in its territory, ISIL fighters become more concerned about their own security and less free to orchestrate complex attacks against Iraq or externally, including against the United States, the secretary said.
Townsend added that, at the top tier of ISIL leadership, there's an overlap between leadership in Mosul, leadership in Raqqa and external operations. "The top-tier leaders … are involved in all of those things," he said. "So by killing those individuals, we affect both sides of this theater and external operations as well."
Targeting mid-tier leaders causes confusion in the ranks of defenders in Mosul, Townsend said. "Both [top and mid-tier] efforts have been successful, and I think they're going to pay off here in the coming weeks ahead," he added.
DISMANTLING THE CALIPHATE
Carter said it's essential that the Iraqi security forces destroy ISIL in the cities of Mosul and Raqqa, but pointed out that doing so won't end the campaign.
"We know that ISIL will take to other lesser locations in the countryside in Iraq, to take the Iraq example," he said. "And we're all planning to help the Iraqi security forces consolidate their control over all of Iraqi territory." Defeating ISIL in Iraq and Syria is essential but not sufficient, the secretary added.
"That's why -- whether it's Afghanistan or Libya or anywhere else -- we and our coalition partners have a campaign wherever ISIL may pop up, … and every time we eliminate, overseas, an external plotter, we contribute to the protection of the homeland," the secretary said.
Every time the coalition gathers intelligence, he added, "we're able to share that with our law enforcement and intelligence partners back home so we can interdict anybody who might be trying to plan or conduct attacks in the United States."
After victory in Mosul, Iraq, and Raqqa, Syria, Carter said, the fight will become more of a counterterrorism effort when ISIL's physical caliphate is dismantled.
"They will not have the fiction any longer that there is an Islamic state based upon this ideology," he said. "They will not have territory from which to plot freedom of action [or] any kind of territory of this size to operate from. And … we'll learn more and more about [ISIL's leadership] so we'll know more [about] how to eliminate their leadership, and that makes them more vulnerable."
Townsend echoed the secretary's point. "You can't be a caliphate without territory," he said. "So in one way, the fight has been clean. At least we know where the enemy is as long as he has territory. … But at the same time, that's balanced by the fact that he's then just an idea, an ideology and terrorist insurgent organization."