Mattis Trumpets Speed of New Counter-ISIS Strategy

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis speaks during a news conference with Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at the Pentagon, May 19, 2017. DOD photo by Army Sgt. Amber I. Smith.

The Department of Defense briefed reporters on the Trump administration’s new strategy for an “accelerated operation against ISIS” Friday afternoon, and speed of operations took center stage. “No longer will we have slow decision cycles because Washington, D.C., has to authorize tactical movements on the ground,” Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis told reporters.

That speed is already making a difference, Mattis claimed, in the last stages of the battle for Mosul in Iraq and the lead up to the fight for Raqqa in Syria. The impact of the new strategy has “shown up clearly in our tactical reports,” he said, without elaborating. The goal of this faster war is the “annihilation” of ISIS.

Two changes drive the new approach. First, Mattis said, President Donald Trump has “delegated authority to the right levels to aggressively and in a timely manner move against enemy vulnerabilities.” Mattis insisted that empowering commanders on the ground in this way would involve “no change to our rules of engagement” and “no change to our continued extraordinary efforts to avoid civilian casualties.”

Second, Mattis said, Trump has “directed a tactical shift” that emphasizes “surrounding the enemy in their strongholds so that we can annihilate ISIS.” Previous approaches, he said, have involved “simply shoving [ISIS fighters] from one [place] to another and actu?ally reinforcing them as they fall back.” This has allowed defeated fighters to escape to another area where they can fight another day. Staunching this “foreign fighter flow” is a crucial piece of the new strategy, affirmed Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, USMC Gen. Joseph Dunford.

Mattis told reporters the war against ISIS had already seen significant success—including the recapture of 55,000 square kilometers of territory won by ISIS since 2014 and the liberation of 4.1 million civilians under ISIS control. “While they are still dangerous,” Mattis said, “they are no longer carrying an air of strength.”

Two tactical shifts emerging directly from the new Trump plan, Dunford said, were the decision to “equip the Syrian Democratic Forces” and the authorization to move American advisers “down to the battalion level” in the battle to retake Mosul. This latter change is limited in application, Dunford said. “We haven’t changed the broad guidance to our forces that are working with our partners on the ground,” but because of “the complex terrain inside the city of Mosul,” commanders were given leeway to embed their personnel more deeply within Iraqi Security Forces.

Still, American advisers in Iraq and Syria “don’t actually close with the enemy,” Dunford said. That work will still be left to the local forces. Dunford said he has recently been impressed with the “competence of the Iraqi leadership.” He said “the level of confidence of the commanders … is remarkably different than it was a short time ago.”

But Mattis warned that “tough fighting lies ahead.” If the Trump administration’s goal is “annihilation” of ISIS, Mattis said that would be achieved when “we drive them down to a point where the locals can handle that.” When ISIS is “no longer a trans-national, trans-regional threat,” the US will be able to claim victory. While DOD leaders are aware that “this threat is a long-term threat,” Mattis insisted that it is “not our intent” to have American forces in Iraq and Syria for years to come.