Local Forces Must Exploit Gains from US Strikes against ISIS: James

Air Force Secretary Deborah James said local forces in Iraq and Syria need to secure gains made by coalition airstrikes against the Islamic State.

"Every single theater commander with whom I spoke indicated that our strategy of degrading and ultimately destroying Daesh is proceeding at pace," said James, referring to the group by the Arabic name that it reportedly hates.

The service's top official also noted that it's critical for local forces step up to capitalize on gains made by coalition airstrikes.

"Everyone indicated that airpower is getting its job done," she said. "Now, in the very next sentence, everyone also indicated that indigenous ground forces now need to get their part of the job done."

Senior Pentagon leaders on Tuesday told Congress that has begun to happen.

The Pentagon and the administration have struggled to contain the rise and expansion of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, which holds territory in both countries. The Iraqi army more than a year ago set the stage of significant territorial losses after it cut and ran when attacked by a much smaller but more committed ISIS force.

In Syria, meanwhile, where ISIS -- also known as ISIL -- formed, the terrorist group was able to expand even as it fought against the Syrian army of Bashar al-Assad and rebel groups opposed Assad's regime.

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told Congress on Tuesday that the situation has changed. In recent weeks, they said, improved intelligence gathering and airstrikes have made it possible to hit ISIS in critical ways, making it possible for Kurdish Peshmerga fighters in Iraq to push back and take back territory from the group.

Carter told lawmakers on the House Armed Services Committee that Peshmerga fighters have already taken the town of Sinjar, cutting communications between Mosul and Raqqa -- the largest cities under ISIS control.

Iraqi forces are also preparing to take Ramadi in Anbar Province, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford told the committee, and once it falls "you are starting to close the door."

During the same hearing Carter announced that the U.S. would be deploying Special Operations troops to Iraq to form specialized targeting teams that will work with Peshmerga forces to conduct rescue missions, collect intelligence and take out ISIS targets in Iraq.

It will also conduct mission unilaterally in Syria, Carter said.

Though the exact make-up of the teams has not been detailed, James told reporters Wednesday that the Air Force would have a role.

"I'll give you my best speculation about what these teams ... might look like," she said. "Obviously they have to get from point A to point B, and that's the job of the mobility forces. As for battlefield airmen, JTACs [joint terminal air controllers] could well be a part of it, but the details, precisely, are not yet worked out."

--Bryant Jordan can be reached at bryant.jordan@military.com. Follow him on Twitter at @bryantjordan.

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