Fort Hood commander Lt. Gen. Paul E. Funk II, who is leading the anti-ISIS campaign in the Middle East, said Monday that even as the Islamic State is pushed from its territories in Iraq and Afghanistan, stubborn challenges will exist in the region, perhaps for years.
Funk pointed to a single neighborhood in Raqqa, Syria, the former capital of the terror group’s briefly held caliphate, where coalition forces have found more than 8,000 improvised explosive devices planted by fleeing ISIS soldiers. Clearing the devices and making the neighborhood livable is but one example of the lengthy reconstruction that awaits in wide swaths of the region.
In a briefing with Central Texas media Monday morning, Funk said Iraqi and coalition forces have effectively pushed ISIS out of Iraq and all but a few pockets of influence in Syria.
“We’ve got a victory here,” Funk said via teleconference from Iraq, adding, “We still have some hard fighting to do in Syria.”
Funk and about 240 members of Fort Hood’s III Corps command group took the reins of Operation Inherent Resolve in September, and since then, Funk said, about a million more Iraqis and Syrians have been liberated from ISIS rule.
Last week, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced that coalition forces had wrested control of the Syria-Iraq border and declared “total victory” over ISIS in the country.
Since the beginning of 2017, coalition forces have driven the Islamic State out of Mosul in northern Iraq and more recently from the group’s headquarters in Raqqa.
In his news conference with local media, Funk defended the accuracy of U.S. airstrikes, which have been credited with pushing ISIS out of territories it seized three years ago but have come under criticism for their toll on civilians.
Last month, The New York Times Magazine published results of an investigation that found airstrikes connected to the U.S. military’s anti-ISIS efforts were considerably less precise than the coalition had claimed over the past three years. The magazine, which visited nearly 150 airstrike sites in northern Iraq, said it found that 1 in 5 strikes resulted in civilian death, a rate 31 times higher than the rate acknowledged by the coalition, about 1 in 157.
Funk said coalition forces take “immense steps” to prevent civilian casualties and blamed ISIS for hiding among civilians.
“When the enemy uses civilians as shields, it’s incredibly hard not to have civilian casualties,” Funk said. “Our procedures are sound.”
As the Islamic State disperses — Funk said he is witnessing ISIS leaders “abandoning their people and running off” — some experts have worried that the remnants could morph into less centralized groups that are even more radical. An ISIS splinter group is believed to have been behind the Nov. 24 massacre of 300 civilians at a mosque in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.
Mohammed Gomaa, an expert on extremist groups at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, told The Associated Press that ISIS factions are expanding their target list to include Muslim civilians. The mosquegoers killed in Egypt were Sufi Muslims practicing a more mystical form of Islam.
“They are sending a message of how far they’re willing to go, frighten tribes into submission and provide a response to a series of battlefield successes by security forces,” Gomaa said.
In Iraq and Syria, coalition forces and residents will be dealing with what ISIS left behind, namely thousands of IEDs embedded in cities and towns.
“The IED problem is real,” Funk said. “It’s going to take a long time to solve.”
Funk said that another prime challenge in coming months will be finding jobs for fighting-age men as reconstruction efforts begin. It will be “a big problem if we don’t find them employment,” Funk said.
“We are winning here, but we have to act now,” he said. “We have to get the international community to help the Iraqis.”
In all, more than 17,000 Fort Hood troops will spend the Christmas holidays deployed overseas in places such as South Korea, Europe and the Middle East.