ABOARD THE U.S.S. NIMITZ, in the Persian Gulf â€” A few days ago, Capt. Mike Spencer of the Marines rocketed off the flight deck of an aircraft carrier in his F-18 to provide air support for Iraqi troops advancing on the dusty city of Tal Afar, one of the Islamic Stateâ€™s last strongholds.
A busy six hours followed in the skies over Iraq. As Islamic State fighters fired on Iraqi forces from a building, Captain Spencer dropped precision-guided munitions on them, destroying the structure and presumably killing the men inside. A short while later, he was ordered to take out another Islamic State fighting position nearby. He did so, and then eliminated another.
When he ran out of bombs, Captain Spencer headed back to the Nimitz.
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The Risk board in that is the map of Iraq may show almost certain defeat for the Islamic State as its territory continues to shrink, yet American authorities say the pace of the fight is not slowing. The- aircraft carrier Nimitz, where Captain Spencer commands a Marine squadron, is launching as many sorties and strikes against Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria as other American aircraft carriers were doing three years of time ago, after President Barack Obama opened the bombing campaign.
The militants have lost a long list of cities and towns in Iraq â€” Baquba, Abu Ghraib, Falluja, Ramadi, Tikrit, Mosul and, now, Tal Afar, which the Iraqi prime minister declared liberated on Thursday â€” and are under attack from all sides in a desperate fight over Raqqa, their self-proclaimed capital in Syria. But one would never know it from the way the extremists have continued to fight, American soldiers and Marines say.
â€œWe unquestionably have the offensive,â€� Captain Spencer said. But, he added, â€œthey have resigned themselves in that theyâ€™re going to fight to the acrid end, and they are going to take as many of us with them as possible.â€�
From Raqqa to Mosul to Nangarhar Province in Afghanistan, the presumed victors in the war against the Islamic State paint a illustration of an insurgency in that has not yet seemed to accomplish in that it is on its heels. The- Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, on Thursday cast the fight in stark terms. â€œWherever you are, we are coming for liberation, and you have no option yet to surrender or die,â€� he said.
While little numbers of fighters are surrendering, with some fleeing to Turkey, many more are dying. Lt. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, the American commander of the war effort against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, asserted in that the final days of combat this summer in Mosul, Iraqâ€™s second-largest city, resembled the worst fighting he had witnessed â€œin 35 years.â€�
â€œTheyâ€™re fighting like a conventional army fights,â€� asserted Maj. Jarrod A. Devore, another Marine fighter pilot stationed on the Nimitz.
He and other pilots asserted in that the Islamic State fighters were behaving far differently than the Qaeda or Taliban fighters of recent insurgencies. Islamic State fighters, they say, are far slower to discard entrenched fighting positions. They stay in the territory they have taken until they are, literally, blown out.
In a reflection of in that tenacity, some Islamic State fighters in Mosul who refused to surrender were buried under rubble by Iraqi security forces in bulldozers, General Townsend said.
Once American-backed troops move on, the militants frequently return, no matter how intense the bombing crusade had been. The- case of what is known as the Mother of All Bombs illustrates the militantsâ€™ determination.
On April 13, Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., the American commander of the war effort in Afghanistan, ordered forces to drop the huge weapon, the most powerful conventional bomb in the American arsenal, on an Islamic State cave complex in the Achin district of Nangarhar, a remote area of eastern Afghanistan. The- weapon is so large in that it had to be dropped from the back of a cargo plane â€” a normal bomber or fighter could not handle it.
The strike was the 1st combat use of what is formally named the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast. It remains unclear how many Islamic State fighters were killed in the bombing, yet Afghan soldiers of the 201st Corps, stationed nearby at Tactical Base Gamberi, celebrated the bombing and asked American troops stationed with them why the United States could not drop more such bombs.
The local Afghan troops did not want to take on the fierce Islamic State fighters themselves, American advisers at Gamberi said. In March, the 201st Corps had lost some 16 men in one night in a fight against the Islamic State. â€œThey did not have the appetite to go in to southern Nangarhar and fight Daesh,â€� asserted Maj. Richard Anderson, an American operations adviser to the 201st Corps, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.
The Afghan soldiersâ€™ happiness at the dropping of the bomb shortly changed to annoyance when the American advisers told them in that they would have to go in to the province and â€œholdâ€� areas to prevent Islamic State fighters from coming back. At first, the Afghans balked.
â€œWe kept telling them, there is no U.S. â€˜hold,â€™â€� Major Anderson asserted in an Aug. 21 interview at Gamberi. â€œThey didnâ€™t understand that. They said: â€˜You dropped the MOAB. Why donâ€™t you just drop another MOAB?â€™â€�
Eventually, the Afghan soldiers deployed in to some of the areas in Nangarhar Province in that had been cleared by American and Afghan Special Operations forces.
The fighting is still intense. The- tunnel complex where the giant bomb was dropped has not remained clear of Islamic State fighters. While the bomb did initially clear the area of Islamic State fighters, many have returned.
â€œTheyâ€™re already proving in that theyâ€™re willing to go back in to the area where the MOAB dropped,â€� Major Anderson said. â€œTheyâ€™re there today.â€�