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Fort Bragg Commander Gives Update on War Against ISIS

Defense Secretary Ash Carter speaks with Army Lt. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, left, XVIII Airborne Corps commanding general, during a visit to Fort Bragg, N.C., July 27, 2016. (DoD photo by Air Force Tech. Sgt. Brigitte N. Brantley)
Defense Secretary Ash Carter speaks with Army Lt. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, left, XVIII Airborne Corps commanding general, during a visit to Fort Bragg, N.C., July 27, 2016. (DoD photo by Air Force Tech. Sgt. Brigitte N. Brantley)

The names of the cities come easy to Lt. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, each signaling another step toward the defeat of the Islamic State.

Fallujah, Rupa, Tikrit, Baiji and Qayyarah in Iraq. Daqib and Manjib in Syria.

And those are just the larger cities. In all, more than 100 towns and villages have been liberated from ISIS control in the past year.

And Townsend, the commander of the multinational coalition fighting ISIS, hopes to soon add Mosul -- Iraq's second largest city -- and Raqqa -- ISIS's so-called capital in Syria -- to the list.

Iraqi forces have a foothold in Mosul, Townsend said. More than a quarter of the city is already wrested from ISIS. And Syrian forces are marching on Raqqa.

In both efforts, coalition troops -- and especially Fort Bragg's soldiers -- are playing key roles, even if the bulk of the fighting is being left to forces in Iraq and Syria.

"We're not fighting with our own fists," Townsend said of working through those indigenous forces. "We're fighting with someone else's."

Townsend, the commanding general of Fort Bragg and the 18th Airborne Corps, deployed with hundreds of Fort Bragg soldiers in August to assume the head of the anti-ISIS mission.

Now serving as commander of the Combined Joint Task Force -- Operation Inherent Resolve, he spoke with The Fayetteville Observer from Baghdad on Tuesday and described some of the ongoing efforts.

In Syria, he said Fort Bragg troops are supporting special operations forces and the Syrian partners with logistical, medical and artillery support.

That includes teams from the 18th Field Artillery Brigade deployed into the country with High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems.

In Iraq, U.S. troops are heavily involved in coalition efforts to advise and assist Iraqi forces, to include training, equipping, intelligence gathering and fire support from air and ground platforms.

Four months into the deployment, Townsend said the efforts in Iraq and Syria have results far beyond those countries' borders.

To make his point, he lists another set of locales -- Paris, Brussels, Nice and, more recently, Berlin. Then in the United States -- Florida, Texas and California.

Each has been the target of an ISIS-led or ISIS-inspired attack, Townsend said.

"I think it's important to remember why we're doing this," he said. "It's easy to forget why we're here."

This holiday season, Townsend said Americans at home should be extra thankful for those serving overseas -- fighting far from home to prevent attacks across the globe.

"This is an evil ideology and it is a global threat that wants to destroy our way of life and impose their way of life," he said.

Officials knew the fight against ISIS would not be easy, but Townsend said he did not fully grasp the challenges of the fight.

ISIS is a significant and committed enemy, he said. And the battlefield is huge and complex.

In Iraq, the coalition must work around internal struggles between Sunni, Shia and Kurd groups, as well as Iranian and Turkish influences.

In Syria, Townsend said the anti-ISIS fight is occurring adjacent to a civil war.

"That war is not just immediately adjacent to it, it actually overlaps," he said.

Then there are the Russian, Iranian and Turkish forces operating in Syria, each with their own goals related to the fight against ISIS, the civil war or both. Not to mention groups like Hezbollah that also have fighters in the country.

In 2014, ISIS burst onto the world scene. It overran northern Syria and one-third of Iraq. But today, the momentum is against ISIS, Townsend said. And the fingerprints of Fort Bragg troops are all over that turnaround.

The 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division was the first brigade to deploy as part of a training mission in Iraq in early 2015. It returned that September.

The 82nd Airborne Division headquarters also served in Iraq as Combined Joint Forces Land Component Command for nine months before returning to Fort Bragg in March.

Fort Bragg troops currently serving in the Operation Inherent Resolve mission include the 18th Airborne Corps headquarters and the 1st Special Forces Command, which is deployed as the Special Operations Joint Task Force -- Operation Inherent Resolve.

Townsend said medical, signal, military intelligence and artillery soldiers are all deployed from Fort Bragg to support the anti-ISIS mission.

"It's significant," Townsend said of the number of Fort Bragg troops serving in the fight against ISIS. "We're a significant presence."

The familiarity of the forces with each other is an advantage, he said.

"I'm a big advocate for it," he said. "I prefer to go to war with people I know already."

Soon there will be more Fort Bragg troops in the region, as 1,700 paratroopers from the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division prepare to deploy.

Those soldiers are set to replace the 2nd Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division after the new year, Townsend said.

The 101st soldiers are deployed across Iraq, often in austere locations.

They've helped train Iraqi forces but also have fired thousands of artillery rounds against ISIS targets, Townsend said, and are often co-located with the local forces they are advising.

The 2nd Brigade of the 82nd Airborne can expect more of the same when it arrives, especially with the fight for Mosul -- "the largest prize in Iraq" -- raging.

"They won't be able to ease into this," Townsend said. "The greatest battle of the war to date is underway now."

Townsend said the battle for Mosul highlights the progress Iraqi forces have made.

"Two years ago the Iraqi army was dispirited, broken and beaten outside the gates of Baghdad," he said.

Today they are leading a multi-division urban assault on a major city, 250 miles north of the Iraq capital.

"This would be hard for any army," Townsend said, including U.S. forces.

As part of the buildup of the Iraqi security forces, Townsend said tens of thousands of troops have been trained and equipped. In Syria, thousands of partnered forces also have been trained.

The forces are now confident. And Townsend said he is confident in them, too.

Liberating Mosul and Raqqa are the next steps for those forces, Townsend said. But they won't be the last.

"ISIS won't be done," he said. "There's a lot of work that has to be done.

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