A Lasting Defeat: The Campaign to Destroy ISIS by Ash Carter - Belfer Center Report
On December 11, 2016, just before my time as Secretary of Defense would end, I stepped off a C-130 transport plane onto a cold and dusty patch of northern Iraq that had been on my mind for more than a year: an Iraqi military airfield called Qayyarah West. Q-West, as it was known to the American military, was a talisman of progress on one of the defining issues of my time as secretary, the fight to defeat ISIS. A year before, General Joe Dunford and I had briefed the President on a plan to energize the counter-ISIS fight. We had laid out a series of military tasks, in Iraq and Syria, that would lead us to the liberation of ISIS’ strongholds in Mosul, Iraq, and Raqqa, Syria. Q-West was a fulcrum of that plan. Ejecting ISIS and turning the airstrip into a logistics hub was essential to seizing Mosul, just 40 miles to the north.
Standing next to Lieutenant General Steve Townsend, the commander Joe and I had selected to lead the fight, I told a small group of reporters: “I wanted to come here to Qayyarah West personally, particularly at this holiday time, to thank our troops who are out here at a pretty austere location that was in [ISIS] hands not long ago…. That has been part of our plan for more than a year now. This very airfield was part of our plan of more than a year ago.”
That plan had become reality, and I was there to see it in person. Iraqi forces, with the support of a U.S.-led global coalition, had seized Q-West just as planned. In fact, the campaign plan that had unfolded on the battlefield was the same one I had presented to President Obama the previous December. I had been looking at Q-West on campaign maps for a long time.
The story of how we got there is one of a little good fortune, a lot of skill and bravery on the part of young men and women from many nations—and, I think, some key decisions and recommendations that I and the department’s leadership made, and that President Obama consistently approved, to change a fight that had been going poorly…