President Donald Trump’s decision to grant his military “total authorization” to make combat decisions has allowed the armed forces to be “more aggressive” in the fight against the Islamic State, according to the outgoing commander of U.S.-led coalition forces in Iraq and Syria.
“It has freed us up a bit to prosecute the war in a more aggressive manner, I think,” said Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, head of Operation Inherent Resolve, in an interview with TIME coinciding with his departure from the role he has held since August 2016.
Under Townsend, the American-led military coalition has seen a critical phase of the war against the Islamic State that included the liberation by Iraqi forces of the city of Mosul and the launch of the operation on ISIS’ capital in the Syrian city of Raqqa. In July, Iraqi troops backed by U.S. airpower reconquered Mosul following a nine-month battle including long periods of intense street-to-street fighting. The twin battles for Mosul and Raqqa have proved a turning point, milestones on the road to the Islamic State’s eventual loss of its territorial empire.
The battle for the western half of Mosul, where ISIS fighters lodged in dense neighborhoods took hundreds of civilians prisoner amid fierce fighting, was especially intense, said the 35-year veteran. “It was the most constant heavy combat I think that we have [seen] since maybe before Vietnam, maybe Korea or World War II.”
Yet since March the U.S.-led air war has also resulted in a spike in civilian deaths. As many as 1,062 civilians died in American-led strikes in Iraq and Syria in August alone, according to Airwars, a leading monitoring group based in London. This increase also came as President Trump took office, and empowered the Pentagon to make key decisions regarding the use of force without his approval. Human rights groups argue the coalition is not doing enough to protect civilians in the ongoing campaigns in Iraq and Syria.
Townsend offered an unyielding defense of the coalition’s tactics, placing blame squarely on ISIS for putting civilians in harm’s way. There was nothing more coalition forces could have done to keep civilians safe in Mosul, he said. “It’s a war. It’s unfortunate but it’s a fact of life, a fact of war that civilians are hurt and killed in wartime. We don’t take any pleasure in that,” he said. He also said, “If ISIS will just surrender in Raqqa then probably no more civilians will be hurt there.”
One incident in particular raised alarms about the surging civilian death toll in Mosul, a coalition bombing in the Mosul al-Jadida neighborhood on the morning of March 17 that killed at least 105 civilians. The 500 pound bomb targeted a pair of ISIS snipers, but killed at least 101 civilians who had been located in the lower levels of the building and four others in a nearby building. The coalition’s investigation into the bombing found that military officials had seen no sign of civilians entering the building, and blamed the blast on ISIS.
Explaining the incident, Townsend said the decision to attack the building was made in a matter of minutes in the heat of a “battlefield emergency,” leaving no time to independently check whether there had been civilians in the building, instead relying on observations from commanders in the field at the time. “The process unfolds in real time and we do the best that we can,” he said of the strike.
The coalition commander revealed that the Mosul al-Jadida attack prompted U.S.-led forces to actively watch for ISIS’ use of civilians as hostages during the fighting in Mosul. “We were looking for the hostages and we started noticing things that probably may have been observable to us before but we hadn’t noticed them,” he said. “We actually started seeing hostages being herded down the street, herded into buildings.”
Lt. Gen. Townsend spoke to TIME by phone on August 24. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
TIME: What can you tell us about the intensity of the battle for Mosul?
LT. GEN. TOWNSEND: The city was under Iraqi control on July 10. There remained a patch of less than 200 meters by 200 meters that took another six days to finish. Eventually it reminded me of something out of World War II war footage, say Iwo Jima. Marines tackling the final holdouts of the Japanese in caves and bunkers. That’s what it looked like in West Mosul there.
In the final stand an Iraqi bulldozer led the way burying ISIS fighters popping up out of the rubble with suicide vests on, and the bulldozer basically dozing them under the rubble. The Iraqi infantry were walking alongside the bulldozer, protecting the dozer, throwing grenades, and shooting ISIS fighters as they popped up. It was incredibly brutal.
It was the longest battle I personally have been a participant in or borne witness to in my entire military career. It was the most constant heavy combat I think that we have [seen] since maybe before Vietnam, maybe Korea or World War II. This large, urban battle, nine months in length. Incredible.
How did your tactical approach change in western Mosul?
Probably the most significant one actually occurred in late November, early December. Up to that point we had been doing most of our advising at the Iraqi division headquarters level. As we got more heavily engaged, we began to realize that that we needed to be closer to the fight. [So] we started advising at the brigade level. That turned out to be the sweet spot. On occasion we would go down to battalion level, on a case-by-case basis, where the mission called for it.
As we got deeper into the dense urban part of Mosul, that’s when civilian casualties became a greater concern. As we saw troops on the frontlines coming to a stalemate, the casualties on both sides went up, the damage of the infrastructure went up, and civilian casualties went up. Just think about it — if you have two sides that sit for three days flinging high-explosive ordnance at each other across a street, there’s just going to be a lot of destruction and a lot of casualties.
It became important to keep the front line moving. If you keep moving, that means fewer casualties for civilians, for the Iraqi security forces, and less damage to the city.
Was ISIS’ use of civilians as human shields more widespread than was expected?
We didn’t really have hard evidence of it until we struck a house in March in the al-Jadida neighborhood of western Mosul. Mid-March we struck this house with a bomb that was designed to take out two snipers in a room on the top floor and the entire house exploded. It should not have done that with the ordinance that we used.
No one could even get to that house for awhile, and after several days reports started emerging of hundreds of civilian dead. What the investigation concluded was that the enemy had rigged the house to detonate. Explosives experts demonstrated how the house had to have been deliberately prepared. ISIS moved those explosives into that house knowing that there were 100 plus people in the basement and on the first floor. That gives you just one example of this evil that I’m talking about here. They deliberately baited us into striking a house full of civilians knowing what would happen and the world condemnation that would come from that.
Was there any indication that there were civilians in the al-Jadida house before it was attacked?
No, there were not.
When you’re considering striking a building, what steps are taken to establish whether or not there are non-combatants in the area?
There’s two processes. For a deliberate target, or a target we’re going to strike some days from now, a lot of ISR [intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance] goes into watching that target.
We collect intelligence from forts on the building that have been repurposed by the enemy and what they’re being used for. We try to correlate all this information together to decide a strike. We know that there might possibly be some civilian there at the moment we strike but we deliberately select the hour, the type of strike, the type of munitions to defeat the target with the absolute minimum damage to that structure or adjacent structures.
The other one is a dynamic strike, which is, ‘hey, we haven’t been able to stare at this for days but we have to strike it now.’ And the process is similar, it’s just accelerated. The deliberate process, that takes hours and days. The dynamic process, that takes minutes so we go through the same process to decide to strike.
In the accelerated process that was in al-Jadida, we had a battlefield emergency going on there and we had to strike quickly. The enemy was attacking our Iraqi partners there that day … and so the strike on this one position was part of the defense of their forward line of troops. We also had some bad weather that had precluded our ability to stare at that target for any extended period of time. In those cases we trust our battlefield commanders, and advisors, and our partners forward, and if they need the fire then we provide it. The process unfolds in real time and we do the best that we can.
How did the al-Jadida incident change your approach?
After that, we started trying to actually anticipate [hostage taking]. We started noticing things that might have been observable to us before but we hadn’t noticed them. We started seeing hostages being herded down the street, herded into buildings. We actually observed windows being boarded up and doors being welded shut.
Whenever we saw that, we avoided striking those places. We did not allow the enemy to bait us into striking that until we could see that hostages had managed to escape. We would just bypass that place until the enemy had given it up.
In your mind is there anything else that could’ve been done to save more civilian lives in Mosul?
Yeah. ISIS could’ve not taken tens of thousands of civilians hostage in Mosul. ISIS could have not turned Mosul into a Stalingrad. ISIS could have let civilians flee when they wanted to flee. ISIS didn’t have to pack them into houses and pack explosives in on top of them. ISIS didn’t have to pack them into buildings and weld the doors shut. Those are the things that could’ve been done to lessen civilian lives. I don’t find that the coalition or our Iraqi partners could have done much more to lessen civilian losses.
I’m not trying to tell you that civilians aren’t getting hurt in this war. They are. Sometimes they’re in the wrong place at the wrong time. This is a war and civilians get hurt in war. There’s not been a more careful campaign or a more precise campaign in the history of warfare, but civilians are still going to get hurt at times. That’s just an unfortunate part of war. If ISIS will just surrender in Raqqa, [Syria] then probably no more civilians will be hurt there.
President Trump said in April that he gave the military what he called “total authorization” over important decisions involving the use of force. Did that have any effect on how the battles unfolded, particularly in Mosul?
I think there have been. But, look, I am very appreciative of having military and civilian leaders who don’t want to control every decision we make and don’t demand minute by minute reports on what we’re doing here. I think we’re well supported. We have the authority we need and we are well supported by our military and our civilian chain of command. I think that’s what the American people want. They want to trust their military leaders. They trust our armed forces; give them a job to do, give them the tools to do it, and then get out of the way and let them do it.
I can’t say that any one of those—any increases of authority—have caused us to change the way we do business significantly, but it has freed us up a bit to prosecute the war in a more aggressive manner, I think.
Is true victory even possible against this kind of brutal group that has shown a remarkable ability to persist and change?
I absolutely believe that victory is possible in Iraq and Syria. We’ve already taken big steps towards destroying the physical caliphate by taking away Mosul, their capital in Iraq. The largest population center they held anywhere in the world. We have their self-proclaimed global capital under assault in Raqqa, Syria.
Now, defeating the physical caliphate or the physical state, does that defeat ISIS? I don’t believe so. They will evolve because they’re survivors and they’ve been resilient. They’ll evolve into an insurgency. They have a significant presence on the Internet; some people call it a virtual caliphate. They’ll continue to be there. They will try to raise franchises in other parts of the world. I think we have to defeat their idea. That’s more important than defeating their force.
[But] a lot of their narrative is tied to their physical state. ‘Come to the caliphate. It’s a blissful life here.’ Well, you come here and you’re going to get killed by the coalition. You’re just going to live a life of misery until you die. Right now, their defeat here is the largest blow we could make to their narrative.
Where’s ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi? Is he alive?
If I knew where Baghdadi was he would be dead and I would announce that to the world. It always baffles me, you guys want to know where Baghdadi is. If I knew where he was there’d be a B-1 bomber heading there right now, or some of our partner forces, or the coalition troopers. I wouldn’t tell you if I did know, and if I did know he’d be dead. I don’t have a clue where Baghdadi is.
You’re implying that he’s alive?
I do think he’s alive. Look, I’ve got no reporting. A few months ago the Russians said they killed him in a strike. They never provided any proof of that. We’ve not heard any proof and it’s not even out there really in the rumor mill. It’s certainly not out there in intelligence. I would say we’ve maybe had some near misses but I don’t think he’s dead. I don’t have any intelligence that suggests that he’s dead. I also don’t have any intelligence that tells me where he’s alive.