US Army Staff Sgt. Kyle Grover, assigned to Charlie Company, 2nd Battalion, 22nd Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, walks up to a key leader engagement during a dismounted, night patrol at Al Asad Air Base, Iraq, Nov. 18, 2022. The patrols are designed to help defeat of ISIS. US Army photo by Sgt. Julio Hernandez.
US Central Command is touting its final report for 2022 as proof it's “degraded” the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria, but questions persist about how deeply the terrorist organization has been wounded.
Released Thursday, Dec. 29, the brief counted 313 operations against ISIS in both Middle Eastern nations.
CENTCOM disclosed that 14 unilateral operations conducted by US forces, and another 108 operations with Syrian Democratic Forces, triggered the deaths of 466 Islamic State group “operatives” and the detentions of 215 others.
In Iraq, CENTCOM conducted 191 operations alongside Iraqi security forces, killing “at least 220 ISIS operatives” and imprisoning 159 others, according to the release.
“The emerging, reliable and steady ability of our Iraqi and Syrian partner forces to conduct unilateral operations to capture and kill ISIS leaders allows us to maintain steady pressure on the ISIS network,” said US Army Maj. Gen. Matt McFarlane, the commander of Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve, in the brief.
Charlie Battery, 1st Battalion, 134th Field Artillery Regiment, 37th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, from the Ohio Army National Guard, fire the first round of the day from an M777 howitzer at Mission Support Site Conoco, Syria, Dec. 4, 2022. US Army photo by Sgt. Julio Hernandez.
The two-star said both the US and its allies and partners in the region remain steadfastly committed to destroying ISIS.
McFarlane’s boss, US Army Gen. Michael “Erik” Kurilla, joined him in praising Syrian and Iraqi partner forces, insisting that they’ve disrupted ISIS operations.
But Kurilla cautioned the organization’s “vile ideology remains unconstrained” and attractive to what he called “a literal ‘ISIS army’ in detention in Iraq and Syria.”
Estimated at roughly 30,000 former fighters and their leaders, they fill jail cells across the two nations, and often aren’t housed with the tightest security.
Soldiers assigned to 1st Battalion, 125th Infantry Regiment, 37th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, open Christmas stockings while waiting for a holiday meal in northeastern Syria, Dec. 24, 2022. US Army National Guard photo courtesy of Capt. David Kennedy.
Kurilla pointed to the Battle of Al-Hasakah, a coordinated prison riot and ISIS attack 11 months ago that was designed to spring hundreds of operatives incarcerated in Al Sina’a Prison.
The four-star estimated that more than 420 ISIS members died in the melee, but so did more than 120 Syrian Democratic Forces.
US-led airstrikes reduced the lockup to rubble, but ISIS could claim that it launched the deadliest assault since 2019, after they fled their final strongholds and took up clandestine guerrilla and propaganda operations.
That included ongoing recruiting efforts in refugee camps filled with displaced Sunni Arab families who fled the fighting in Iraq and Syria.
Asayish training academy members stand in formation during a Syrian Internal Security Forces graduation ceremony in the al-Hasakah region, Syria, Dec. 23, 2022. US Army Reserve photo by Sgt. 1st Class Nicholas J. De La Pena.
Kurilla cautioned that al-Hol Displacement Camp near Syria’s border with Iraq was particularly vulnerable because of the more than 25,000 children there who remain “prime targets for ISIS radicalization.”
“The international community must work together to remove these children from this environment by repatriating them to their countries or communities of origin while improving conditions in the camp,” he said.
CENTCOM also warned that ISIS still seeks to “direct and inspire destabilizing attacks in the region and globally, to include against the US homeland.”
But not everyone is convinced.
Norwegian troops assigned to the Telemark Battalion, Task Force Viking, Combined Joint Task Force - Operation Inherent Resolve, train inside Al Asad Air Base, Iraq, Dec. 22, 2022. US Army photo by Sgt. Julio Hernandez.
Coffee or Die Magazine reached out to retired US Army Col. Gregory Daddis, the USS Midway chair in modern US military history at San Diego State University and one of the world’s top experts on measuring success or failure during murky counterinsurgency wars.
Reading the brief, Daddis said it was “telling that CENTCOM leads with quantitative metrics of progress, yet none of those metrics are tied to effectiveness of the operations they tout.”
Daddis, who served in Iraq, pointed to the Phoenix program during the Vietnam War that targeted the communist-led National Liberation Front and questioned whether the same sorts of ineffectual metrics that guided those operations were driving CENTCOM’s efforts in the Middle East.
“They don’t tell us if if the ISIS operatives killed or detained were key players in the organization or low-level members who easily could be replaced,” he said.
US Army soldiers from 3rd Platoon, Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 102nd Infantry Regiment (Forward), Connecticut Army National Guard, conduct a mounted patrol in Iraq, October 2004. Courtesy photo by Rick Marshall.
Daddis also took aim at fuzzy terms like “degrade,” asking what it really meant.
“How is ‘security and stability within Iraq’ being measured and compared to what definitions?” he added.
He also quibbled about the key assumption that ISIS wants to project global power and can direct and inspire attacks against the US homeland.
“Does ISIS truly have that kind of reach?” he asked.
US Army Staff Sgt. Gary Brooks, assigned to Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 125th Infantry Regiment, 37th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, Task Force Reaper, Combined Joint Task Force - Operation Inherent Resolve, provides overwatch during a combined training exercise at Al Asad Air Base, Iraq, Dec. 22, 2022. US Army photo by Sgt. Julio Hernandez.
The concerns Daddis voiced seemed to partly echo the March 15 testimony by US Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the outgoing CENTCOM commander, before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
While noting ISIS attacks in Iraq had dwindled slightly between 2020 and 2021, fighters were still averaging 97 bombings, assassinations, and other mayhem inside Iraq every month in 2021.
And they remained operationally active in Diyala, Kirkuk, and Salah ad Din provinces.
Coffee or Die tried to ask CENTCOM officials about these concerns, but they didn’t respond to the magazine’s requests for comment.
According to Pentagon planners, roughly 2,500 US troops are stationed in Iraq and another 1,000 serve in Syria. Across the Middle East, CENTCOM counts more than 15,000 deployed personnel.
Carl Prine is a former senior editor at Coffee or Die Magazine. He has worked at Navy Times, The San Diego Union-Tribune, and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He served in the Marine Corps and the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. His awards include the Joseph Galloway Award for Distinguished Reporting on the military, a first prize from Investigative Reporters & Editors, and the Combat Infantryman Badge.
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