MacFarland's Legacy: Shifting From Defense to Offense Against ISIS

Army Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland, the top U.S. commander in Baghdad, speaks to reporters in Baghdad, Iraq, Friday, May 20, 2016. (AP Photo/Robert Burns)
Army Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland, the top U.S. commander in Baghdad, speaks to reporters in Baghdad, Iraq, Friday, May 20, 2016. (AP Photo/Robert Burns)

Army Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland was set to brief the Pentagon on Wednesday on his tenure as commander of the anti-ISIS campaign in Iraq and Syria, which has seen a slow switch from defense to offense on his watch.

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has already settled on Army Lt. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, commander of the XVIII Airborne Corps at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, as MacFarland's replacement at Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, headquartered in Baghdad.

Townsend, a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, was expected to be on the ground later this month or in early September.

Last September, when Carter named MacFarland to take over at CJTF, the campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria was in disarray. Ramadi, the provincial capital of Anbar province, had fallen to ISIS, and Carter was questioning whether the Iraqi Security Forces had the "will to fight."

The unruly effort U.S. effort lacked coordination among the often conflicting interests of the White House, State Department, intelligence agencies and the Pentagon.

MacFarland's job was to get it under control.

"Rather than three generals responsible for different aspects of the campaign, as had been the case, I have empowered Lt. Gen. MacFarland as the single commander of counter-ISIL activities in both Iraq and Syria," Carter said at the time, using another acronym for ISIS. "His efforts will be critical in the coming months as we continue to provide support for capable partners fighting on the front lines."

By the end of 2015, the ISF, backed by U.S. and coalition airpower and training on how to build floating bridges to get at the city's center, had taken back Ramadi. In the coming months, Fallujah would also fall, although the U.S. initially had urged the Baghdad government to bypass Fallujah to concentrate on northwestern Mosul.

Ramadi was familiar territory for MacFarland. As a colonel in 2007, he had a major part in securing the city and fostering what became known as the "Sunni Awakening" to get the cooperation of the Sunni tribes against the insurgents.

MacFarland told USA Today at the time that, "I was given very broad guidance -- fix Ramadi, but don't destroy it. Don't do a Fallujah." He referred to a previous campaign to take back Fallujah that left the city in ruins after fierce fighting.

MacFarland was due to brief reporters at the Pentagon from Baghdad two days after the second anniversary of the Aug. 8, 2014, start of the U.S. bombing campaign against ISIS. The targets of the airstrikes since then have charted a gradual shift from defense to offense.

The first U.S. airstrikes authorized by President Obama against ISIS two years ago were ordered to halt the march of the terror group on Baghdad and the Kurdish regional capital of Irbil.

On Monday, the second anniversary of bombing campaign, U.S. warplanes struck near Mosul, the last remaining major ISIS stronghold in Iraq, and hit four times near the Syrian city of Manbij to consolidate what appeared to be a crucial victory by U.S.-backed local forces against ISIS in taking back the city, U.S. Central Command reported.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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