This month, Iraqi forces ousted Islamic State fighters from Hawija, the group's last remaining stronghold in Iraq. In Syria, U.S.-backed Syrian fighters pushed the Islamic State out of 80 percent of Raqqa, once the self-proclaimed capital of its terrorist caliphate.
The Washington Examiner spoke with the man leading the Air Force portion of the fight in Iraq and Syria, Air Force Brig. Gen. Andrew Croft.
A former F-15, F-22, and MQ-1 Predator pilot, Croft is now the deputy commanding general of the Air, Combined Joint Forces Land Component Command for Operation Inherent Resolve in Baghdad.
Washington Examiner: What does the liberation of Hawija signal in terms of where we are in our effort to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria?
Croft: It's one step closer to the defeat of ISIS. It's taken us very near the goal line. The defeat of ISIS in Hawija was accomplished more quickly than we had anticipated, which I think tells you that the capability and capacity of the Iraqi Security Forces continues to increase, as does their momentum and confidence in the fight against ISIS. And that has been largely enabled by our advisory teams, but it also actually shows that the ISF is starting to just push out ahead and do things. They always have done it at their own pace, but now it's even more independent of the coalition support, which is a good news story.
The number of forces and the coordination of the forces in the Hawija effort is impressive, and it just continues to get better as they have moved through campaigns.
It also shows that, in my opinion, we dealt ISIS a fatal blow in the Mosul battle, and that fatal blow is to their leadership, cohesiveness, message, and, really, reason for being.
Washington Examiner: Is the outcome now a foregone conclusion?
Croft: I think so. It's just a matter of time, focus, and tempo. I think you are going to see the tempo increase even more so than it already has. That's a tempo that the Iraqi Security Forces are going to set, and then we as a coalition will be there with them in the "by, with, and through" strategy. And I'll tell you as you look back historically from 2003 to now, the strategy of by, with, and through, meaning we'll support them but not do the leading edge of the fighting – which means that they do it at their pace and at their capability and capacity – is really an effective strategy. We continue to stick to that strategy, and I think it's working very well.
Washington Examiner: How significant were the changes made to the strategy by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, namely the "surround and annihilate ISIS" approach, and the delegation of authority closer to the front lines of the battlefield?
Croft: What that does is it takes us back to the way we are trained and organized to fight, and that is in a decentralized fashion, meaning pushing authorities to the lower levels, which enable things to happen faster, allows commanders to make more rapid decisions. It may have been a natural progression. In my view, the way we have moved authorities is an attempt to try and push those to lower level commanders to enable freedom of action, speed of action that enables us to fight faster.
Washington Examiner: How would you describe what is left of the Islamic State in Iraq?
Croft: I think the challenge is as ISIS has been dismantled, there are now pieces of ISIS, which even though they may not be coordinated, we still have to find and destroy through the ISF. There may be small pockets of ISIS fighters that may have just originally tried to avoid destruction, that may have the ability to regenerate somewhere, but not in large numbers. There are more spread out to the west, in Anbar. Finding those elements and destroying them as they become less concentrated may be one of the challenges that lies ahead.
Washington Examiner: How much longer before Iraq is free of the Islamic State?
Croft: I don't know. It's going to be a scaled level of defeat. If you want to call it "a defeat of coherent ISIS caliphate," that's probably already destroyed. I think the Iraqi prime minister said they would be done by this year, which would probably be the end of December-ish. There are still going to be small pockets of resistance, which you may call "police enforcement" or "stability and security enforcement" versus pure combat operations. I think that is going to continue for a while.
Washington Examiner: And how about in Syria?
Croft: It's hard for me to say. There are so many variables in Syria that are in play right now. It's obviously very political, and there are multiple players involved. I think that's going to drive the pace of operations as much as anything else.
Washington Examiner: We were told [last] week that 80 percent of the Islamic State had been cleared from Raqqa. How would you describe the progress in ridding the Islamic State from its self-proclaimed capital?
Croft: It appears to be a steady drumbeat in Raqqa, that does not appear to be variable in time, so it's just a steady drumbeat toward the defeat of ISIS there.
Washington Examiner: Now, you're in Baghdad right?
Croft: I am.
Washington Examiner: Do you have a sense for whether the American people have a full appreciation for what has been accomplished over there?
Croft: I think one of the concerns is people will rapidly forget how bad, how terrible, what a scourge ISIS was. I think we have to keep that in the narrative. We are successful in dismantling ISIS, but we can't forget the atrocities they committed – just pure unadulterated evil. You know, if the ISF had the forces they have now, with the capabilities they have now, they could have destroyed ISIS when it first appeared within probably a week. This would have never happened.
Washington Examiner: It sounds like you are saying an ounce of readiness or preparedness is worth a pound of combat.
Croft: How many times do we have to learn this?
Washington Examiner: The big debate in Washington now is not so much about defeating the Islamic State, but about readiness and funding the military. From your perspective, do you have everything that you need?
Croft: As far as spending, if you look at where we have put our money, for, say, weapons, it's exactly where we need it to be. So, that is very heartening to see that what we think we need to buy is exactly what it is that we need, not only for this fight but for future fights. So, to answer your question, we have what we need here. But we are very cognizant of the fact that readiness and the ability to do other things around the world are equally important.
Washington Examiner: If your next-door neighbor back home said, "General, tell me truthfully how are we doing over there. How's it going?" What would you tell that person?
Croft: What I would say is the strategy we pursued (by, with, and through) with the coalition to enable to Iraqi Security Forces to take back their country from an absolutely brutal enemy is a success story, and we've done it without a huge number of troops on the ground, or even in the air. And at least, from my perspective, from the air component, I believe this is our finest hour. I don't think I've ever seen a more effective air campaign, with not really that large of a force, enable a ground force to defeat a brutal enemy. So, that's sort of what I would say around the grill if we were cooking hamburgers on the Fourth of July.