Centcom's Latest ISIS Assessment Comes Amid Questions Over Intel

In this Jan. 24, 2016, file photo, American and Spanish trainers use live ammunition in training exercises at Basmaya base, 40 kilometers southeast of Baghdad, Iraq. (AP Photo/Karim Kadim)
In this Jan. 24, 2016, file photo, American and Spanish trainers use live ammunition in training exercises at Basmaya base, 40 kilometers southeast of Baghdad, Iraq. (AP Photo/Karim Kadim)

U.S. military officials recently have described ISIS as under pressure and in retreat from Afghanistan to Libya in offensives that have killed 45,000, but the outgoing U.S. commander in Iraq and Syria added a cautionary note.

The upbeat reports also coincide with charges from a House Republican Joint Task Force that U.S. Central Command, while under the command of Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, routinely produced reports from its Intelligence Directorate that "were inconsistent with the judgments of many senior, career analysts at CentCom."

The interim, 10-page report found that the CentCom intel was "consistently more optimistic regarding the conduct of U.S. military action than that of the senior analysts" assigned to assess the capabilities of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

The Republican task force essentially confirmed a Daily Beast report last year, which said that as many as 50 intelligence analysts complained of being "bullied" into altering their assessments.

The Republican report said that the climate at CentCom had improved markedly since Army Gen. Joseph Votel took command, but that "many issues" remained.

Republican Reps. Ken Calvert of California, Mike Pompeo of Kansas and Brad Wenstrup of Ohio led the task force, which covered the period up to mid-2015. Votel took command at CentCom from Austin in March.

Since then, Iraqi Security Forces with U.S. air support have taken Fallujah back from ISIS and moved north to set up bases for an eventual assault on Mosul, the last remaining major ISIS stronghold in Iraq.

In Syria, U.S.-backed opposition forces in the northeast were reportedly in clearing operations against the remaining ISIS fighters in Manbij. The taking of Manbij was seen as a major step in plans for an offensive to the south to take Raqqa, the proclaimed "capital" of the caliphate.

Collapsing 'on all fronts'

In his final briefing Wednesday to the Pentagon as commander of Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, Army Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland said that ISIS was continuing to lose territory and its defenses were collapsing "on all fronts."

MacFarland will be replaced later this month by Army Lt. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, commander of XVIII Airborne Corps at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

When he took command last September, MacFarland said that ISIS "still controlled the Euphrates River Valley from the Syrian-Turkish border almost to the edge of Baghdad, to include the recently fallen city of Ramadi."

"The enemy held all the major population centers in Ninawa province in the north, and along the Tigris River valley from Mosul down to the oil refineries down at Baiji."

Syrian opposition partners were hanging on "by their fingertips in northwest Syria," MacFarland said. "The Kurds in both Iraq and Syria had ceased advancing. Many observers characterized the situation then as a stalemate."

"You don't hear the word 'stalemate' anymore," MacFarland said. "That's because over the past year with our partners, we were able to seize the initiative. We now talk about maintaining the momentum of the campaign in both Iraq and Syria. In other words, we spend more time thinking about what we will do to the enemy than we spend thinking about what the enemy might do to us."

"And although it's not a measure of success and it's difficult to confirm, we estimate that over the past 11 months we've killed about 25,000 enemy fighters," MacFarland said. "When you add that to the 20,000 estimated killed prior to our arrival, that's 45,000 enemy taken off the battlefield."

"As I wrap up, I'd like to register a note of caution," MacFarland said. "Military success in Iraq and Syria will not necessarily mean the end of Daesh," an Arabic acronym for ISIS. "We can expect the enemy to adapt, to morph into a true insurgent force and terrorist organization capable of horrific attacks like the one here on July 3rd in Baghdad and those others we've seen around the world."

MacFarland also said he was confident that the turmoil in Turkey following the attempted coup last month would not impact the campaign against ISIS in Syria or operations against ISIS out of the U.S. airbase at Incirlik in southeastern Turkey.

"Well, first of all, Turkey is a NATO ally. They provide us with all sorts of important support for this campaign, and I would anticipate that that will continue," MacFarland said.

At a Pentagon news conference Wednesday, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said she wasn't so sure.

"Turkey has been a good ally," she said. "They have an effective air force, but of course it's concerning because with so many members of the leadership gone, it's going to take them time to grow new leaders and replace, so it remains to be seen what happens next."

Thus far, U.S. commanders at Incirlik have been treated with "utmost professionalism" by their Turkish counterparts, James said.

A global threat

MacFarland's assessment on the resiliency of ISIS as a terrorist organization echoed that of CIA Director John Brennan and FBI Director James Comey, who have both said that ISIS will remain a global threat for years after its military defeat.

The U.S. military also has reported progress in campaigns against ISIS offshoots in Libya and Afghanistan.

In a briefing to the Pentagon late last month, Army Gen. John Nicholson, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, said that Afghan National Defense Security Forces, backed by U.S. airstrikes and U.S. advisers on the ground, had forced an ISIS affiliate, called Islamic State-Khorasan Province, into retreat in eastern Nangarhar province.

Five U.S. troops have been wounded thus far in the action, but were expected to make full recoveries, Nicholson said.

"We have helped the Afghan Security Forces to reclaim significant portions of the territory that was previously controlled by Daesh. We have killed many Daesh commanders and soldiers, destroyed key infrastructure capabilities, logistical nodes, and Daesh fighters are retreating south into the mountains of southern Nangarhar as we speak," Nicholson said.

However, the Taliban was resurgent in other areas of Afghanistan, and this week Taliban fighters reportedly were threatening Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital of opium-rich southeastern Helmand province.

In Libya, at least 29 U.S. airstrikes through Tuesday had enabled militias supporting the U.S.-backed Government of National Accord to end a stalemate in their siege of the ISIS-held port city of Sirte. The militias Thursday reportedly had captured the ISIS headquarters in the city’s center.

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

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