18th Airborne Sees Plenty of Action in Fight against IS

Paratroopers of the 18th Airborne Corps jump over Fort Campbell, Ky., during a warfighting exercise in November 2015. (US Army/Joel Salgado)
Paratroopers of the 18th Airborne Corps jump over Fort Campbell, Ky., during a warfighting exercise in November 2015. (US Army/Joel Salgado)

For a moment on Sept. 11, the war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria took a back seat to honoring those lost on and since the 9/11 terror attacks.

In what was described as a "very short, dignified ceremony," leaders of Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve stood together in a situation room in an undisclosed location for a short moment of reflection, timed to coincide with the first attack on the World Trade Center 15 years ago.

Air Force Col. John "JD" Dorrian, the spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve, said that Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the Fort Bragg commander who is leading the fight against the Islamic State, briefly addressed those gathered in the room.

He ended simply: "All right. Let's get back to the war."

The ceremony, however brief, was a rare reprieve in what has been an amped-up fight against the group known as the Islamic State, ISIL or Daesh.

In the few weeks since Townsend and roughly 450 soldiers of Fort Bragg's 18th Airborne Corps have taken over the anti-ISIL headquarters, there has been little by way of a break in action.

Allies in Syria have put the Islamic State on the defensive, Dorrian said.

And in Iraq, there are more local security forces being trained than at any other time during the war.

At the same time, a near constant barrage of strikes, from the air and artillery, is targeting Islamic State leaders, equipment and infrastructure.

At Kara Soar Base in Iraq last month, Townsend -- visiting soldiers with Fort Bragg's 3rd Battalion, 321st Field Artillery Regiment -- witnessed one of those strikes up close.

The soldiers, who are part of the 18th Field Artillery Brigade and operate vehicle-mounted rockets called HiMARS, were tasked with destroying a nearby Islamic State safe house.

Dorrian said other missions have targeted oil infrastructure that helps fund the Islamic State, supply routes, communications equipment and military leaders.

"They continue to get hammered by air strikes and other capabilities.. There's no place to hide," he said. "We continue to attack nearly every possible weakness -- it makes them more ready to be defeated."

Dorrian, speaking with the Observer from Baghdad, said forces in Iraq and Syria are tightening the noose around the neck of ISIL, conducting operations meant to pave the way for high-profile and long-awaited sieges to reclaim the key cities of Mosul and Raqqa.

"It's been a pretty darn eventful few weeks," he said.

Townsend, who deployed with the rest of the 18th Airborne Corps soldiers last month for the year-long mission, has been clear that he wants to "continue the attack and maintain the momentum," Dorrian said.

And so far, that's been the case.

Dorrian said ISIL has suffered a string of defeats in northern Syria and in the territory around Mosul in Iraq.

That sets the stage for the liberation of those cities, seen as de facto capitals for the Islamic State.

Everything in the two-year war effort has been building to this point, officials said. And the liberations are seen as a key step to discrediting the Islamic State and limiting their influence abroad.

No timetables have been reported for the battles in Mosul and Raqqa.

This week, Dorrian said that will be up to local partners in those countries.

"Ultimately, the Iraqis are the ones that are going into Mosul and liberating it," he said. "And it's our Syrian partners that will go into Raqqa and liberate it."

"We are in support," he said. "It's going to happen on their timetable."

But leading up to the operations, coalition partners, including Fort Bragg troops, are heavily involved in the planning, Dorrian said.

Planners don't believe the liberation of either city will be easy.

"The enemy has been here for two years," Dorrian said. "It's in dense population centers."

Part of the meticulous planning is focused on ensuring civilians aren't harmed in the coming liberations, he said.

Mosul is the second largest city in Iraq, with more than 1.3 million people. It's roughly the size of Houston, he said. And retaking the city will be "orders of magnitude more complicated than Fallujah or Ramadi."

But at the same time, the liberation will benefit from experiences in those two cities.

Dorrian said many of the Iraqi fighters who will retake Mosul are veterans of the recapture of Fallujah or Ramadi from the Islamic State.

They were among the first troops trained by coalition partners as part of Operation Inherent Resolve, and show the progress that has come as more than 35,000 Iraqi forces have been trained.

Currently, there are more than 6,500 Iraqi forces in training, specifically working not only to take Mosul, but also keep it liberated.

That's the highest number in training since the start of Operation Inherent Resolve, Dorrian said.

And the training has become more advanced, with Iraqis focusing on detecting explosive devices, sniping and breaching obstacles.

The training program and other areas of coalition support have flipped the script of the war against the Islamic State, which began with a string of victories. The Islamic State hasn't won a battle in more than a year, Dorrian said. And the Iraqis are growing more confident with every day.

"Nothing creates success like success itself," he said.

"ISIL came into this country and into Syria almost like a conventional army," Dorrian said, describing the long convoys of military vehicles sweeping across those countries.

"Those days are over," he said, noting that coalition military might has made it impossible for the Islamic State to move in such large packages without being blown off the road. "When they do that now, that's a good day."

Liberating the cities is only half the battle.

Dorrian said local forces must be able to hold the cities and prevent the Islamic State from regaining a foothold.

Echoing remarks by Secretary of Defense Ash Carter at Fort Bragg earlier this year, he said military victories in Mosul and Raqqa are "necessary but not sufficient."

They are a prerequisite to the defeat of the Islamic State, Dorrian added. But will do little if Iraqi and Syrian forces, working with international partners, can't stabilize the cities and return life to a semblance of normalcy.

"They will not go quietly," Dorrian said of the Islamic State. "There are a lot of things to be done . and there won't be any let up.

Those serving in the anti-ISIL effort do so not only to help Iraqis and Syrians, but also to protect their own countries, Dorrian said.

Defeating the organization abroad will help ensure they can't attack or inspire attacks in the United States and other coalition nations, he said.

On Sunday, the 9/11 ceremony only emphasized that mission.

"It's gratifying and important work," Dorrian said. "The Fort Bragg community ought to be really proud of the work that's being done here."

(c)2016 The Fayetteville Observer (Fayetteville, N.C.)

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