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Military Officials Brief Senators On ISIS Fight


What could be a pretty significant briefing is taking place on Capitol Hill today. Behind closed doors, senators will hear from Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Joseph Dunford. They're going to be talking about ISIS. And let's bring in our Pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowman.

And Tom, this is - this is a big deal because this is not a normal committee hearing. This is the entire Senate, right?

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: That's right. And the big question, of course, is when will ISIS be defeated in Iraq and Syria? That's what everyone wants to know. The city of Mosul in Iraq, David, has fallen, as you know. And now the focus shifts to Raqqa. And that's the de facto capital of ISIS next door in Syria. And officials say there'll be a renewed push now for Raqqa, a more intensive effort there with more U.S. airstrikes. But officials say that fight could last for months more.

And I'm sure the senators will ask about ISIS elsewhere. There are hundreds of ISIS fighters in Afghanistan. Recently, U.S. and Afghan forces went on still another mission, going after ISIS in areas of eastern Afghanistan. But they've proven to be a pretty tough enemy. And finally, the senators I'm sure will ask about ISIS presence in Europe and in Turkey. Listen, as this caliphate comes to an end, these surviving fighters will scatter into Europe, into Turkey, maybe mount more attacks. And then still others could remain behind, of course, in Iraq and Syria, and launch guerrilla attacks or morph into some sort of a new movement.

GREENE: It sounds like this could be kind of a sobering assessment, a reality check, saying sure, Mosul fell. But ISIS is going to be around for quite some time.

BOWMAN: Absolutely, that's right. And a lot of fighting, not only for the city of Raqqa that I just talked about, but also there's about 150 miles of the Euphrates River valley south of Raqqa that will have to be cleared. So even when Raqqa falls, there's still a lot more fighting to do. And the battlefield is becoming more complex as well, David.

Now that Syrian President Assad has firm control in the western part of his country, his forces, along with Russian and Iranian allies, are moving east. And they'll come closer to U.S. forces and their Arab and Kurdish allies fighting on the ground there of course, around Raqqa. Already, the U.S. has shot down a Syrian aircraft threatening these U.S. allies. And the U.S. has attacked Iranian militia forces getting too close to this U.S.-run training base for these allies in this area.

GREENE: Which is a concern when you have tensions growing among some of these big powers, like Russia and the United States. But let me ask you, Tom, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is going to be at this meeting. He spoke recently optimistically about the U.S. and Russia working together in Syria, not just against ISIS but also on the future of this country, if and when ISIS is defeated. I mean, is that realistic? Are the U.S. and Russia getting along?

BOWMAN: Well, they are somewhat. There's what's called - they're deconflicting their aircraft, basically communicating to make sure they avoid mishaps or accidental shoot-downs. What they hope to do is go beyond that. Can the U.S. and Russia work on, let's say, humanitarian aid? Can they provide stability in places where ISIS has been defeated? At least that's the hope now. But at this point, it really is only just a hope.

GREENE: Let me ask you about Afghanistan, a country you mentioned, too. There are these reports that private military contractors - maybe even including a company run by Erik Prince, the former head of Blackwater - might take a role in fighting in Afghanistan, private military contractors. Is that a possibility?

BOWMAN: Well, I don't think so. There was a meeting at the Pentagon with Erik Prince and Defense Secretary Mattis about all this. There was no readout. But I don't think this is going anywhere. There are serious legal and practical questions. Would such private citizens be tried by Afghan courts? How would Afghan political leaders view all this?

And also, if Erik Prince sends his private army to Afghanistan, how would they work with the Pentagon? And how would they work with intelligence agencies? There are so many questions about this. And again, I don't think this is being seriously considered.

GREENE: NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman in our studio this morning. Thanks, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.