Iraqi security forces are currently conducting two separate, simultaneous offensives against the Islamic State group, in Hawija, just south of Mosul; and the middle Euphrates River valley, on the western border with Syria. At the same time, Iraq’s Kurdistan is in the middle of an independence referendum which could significantly alter the trajectory of Iraq’s future as a unified country.
How is the coalition holding all these pieces together at such a critical time in the war on ISIS?
We spoke with Brig. Gen. Robert “G-Man” Sofge, director of the Combined Joint Operations Center in Baghdad, about where the war against ISIS in Iraq is going, almost three months after the group lost their grip on the city of Mosul.
This transcript has been edited for length.
Q. After more than three years of the U.S. military fighting ISIS in Iraq, how would you describe what’s left?
Sofge: I think a fair description is that [Hawija and the Euphrates River valley] are the last two strongholds for the Iraqi security forces in our fight against ISIS. There’s a sense here, certainly among our Iraqi partners, that they’re solidly on the comeback trail and they’re making history. Where it was probably difficult before Mosul to contemplate the end of ISIS capability, you can see that from here.
In the Hawija pocket, there’s an offensive that’s moving essentially north to the south. And it’s under way as we speak, it’s going as planned. And it’s to move against what has traditionally been a pocket of resistance, an enemy stronghold in other words. Kind of below the Zab river, which runs kind of east-west, and is where a lot of the fighters that we saw in Mosul and Tal Afar flee to — those that didn’t flee further to the west in Syria. So traditional hotbed there. And we’ve seen plenty of enemy activity there.
The second offensive is in the Middle Euphrates valley. It’s actually known as the MERV. There’s an offensive there working from, essentially east to west. And to reclaim territory lost to ISIS and enemy forces when they took over here a couple years ago, and pushing them essentially back up into the al-Qaim region of Iraq, or the Abu Kamal area of Syria.
Q. And how many ISIS are believed to be holed up in and around Hawija?
Sofge: About 1,500 on the high side of enemy fighters there in the region.
The ISF quickly completed Phase 1 of operations in Hawijah and Sharqat, clearing over 1,300 square km and liberating over 100 villages.— OIR Spokesman (@OIRSpox) September 28, 2017
Q. Baghdad has said that it has so far retaken 90 percent of the territory previously held by ISIS. What’s the coalition’s read on territorial progress?
Sofge: The total area liberated in Iraq is about 42,000 square kilometers. In those 42,000 kilometers, about 4 million people liberated.
What we have is a situation that is in their favor. There’s really no doubt that ISIS will lose and the Iraqi security forces are gonna win, and that’s gonna happen. It’s not a question of if; it’s just a matter of when. And I think for the enemy, it’s just how much destruction can they do on the way out. I think that’s the dynamic that you’re seeing now, particularly in this dual offensive.
Q. The Kurdish independence referendum in northern Iraq this week, as well as Turkish military drills on Iraq’s border — are these interrupting the war on ISIS at all?
Sofge: Not directly. There’s posturing around the region, to be sure, with a whole host of forces…You know and ultimately it’s their country, and — like the Pesh problem, what Turkey’s doing up there is really a [government of Iraq] issue and theirs to solve. The same thing with the Kurdistan referendum…Everyone’s aware, everyone’s conscious of a lot of the stuff that’s going on around them. But it really doesn’t have a lot of impact on what we’re working on day-to-day with the government of Iraq.
There’s been a lot of open communication between the Peshmerga and the ISF at the military-to-military level and above…And they’ve agreed, the Pesh will hold their defensive lines against ISIS. There’s equal genuine concern there with the defeat of ISIS and they’re being very cooperative forces working to defeat them there in the Hawija pocket.
Q. Is there any concern that ISIS fighters may go into hiding, fester in sleeper cells, and re-emerge later as yet another iteration of jihadi violence in Iraq?
Sofge: I think it might have been a little easier before…From an advisory perspective we worry about that, certainly for our own force protection. And for the Iraqi security forces that we advise, we worry about the sleeper cells and the idea that they could go to ground. We worry about that a lot, but again it’s those that were sympathetic to ISIS or are ISIS are pretty much getting called out by the population as it returns.
Q. Should we be paying more attention to southern Iraq, where two weeks ago ISIS killed nearly 80 people in a complex attack at a Nasiriyah restaurant and checkpoint?
Sofge: We were disappointed that they were able to carry out such a large attack. It did not deter the Iraqi security force; appropriate measures were taken. The security procedures are being reviewed. I mean it’s a tragedy and a terrible loss of life of innocent Iraqi citizens. It’s that, but it’s also not more than that…There’s significant military force in and around Baghdad and points south in this case that worry every single day about — in particular, these VBIEDs, IEDs, you know, getting inside these defensive belts in the city. And I think you’re seeing some of the old guerrilla tactics of fights past and the desperate moves of a losing enemy.
Q. Are ISIS fighters still using drones like they were back in January?
Sofge: Yeah, there’s been a pretty steep drop-off…There is some, but there’s not a lot. And in all cases, it has little strategic impact to what we’re doing. You know, certainly it’s disconcerting to have an [unmanned aerial system] over your head in a fighting position, but I would tell you that the ISF make much better use of more drones than does ISIS. And the drones that ISIS is using is of little strategic value at this point.
Q. Is there anything you feel the American or international public is underestimating about the ISIS war?
Sofge: The plan really is working here in Iraq. There are other challenges in a lot of other places. There’s a lot of things going on in our crazy world. But here in Iraq, our by-with-and-through strategy of advise-and-assist, and the campaign plan designed by the Iraqis — we go where they go and take the fight to the enemy — and a bloodied Iraqi force that’s got a lot of experience fighting some of the most desperate fighting that’s been done by anybody in a long time — maybe it doesn’t get all the notice it should, is what I would say.
Q. You’ve had an interesting career arc since enlisting into the Corps as a computer programmer. How did those things compare to today?
Sofge: Yeah, well, you know, it was punchcards. And you’d put them together in your rubber band and you’d take them over and run them through the machine…The only reason I had any interest in it was my father did it you know as part of the NASA program. And it allowed me to meet some really fascinating folks who were contemplated these ideas of sending a file wirelessly through the air, you know, to another computer. And I just got to meet all these young smart folks that are now old smart folks. But it was a really great start and allowed to me get into Annapolis and ultimately become the officer that I am today. It all started by hanging out with the right people. And those guys were doing computer programming in 1983.