Col. Charles Costanza commands the coalition's anti-ISIS strike cell team in Erbil. Photo: SFC Matthew Veasley | US Army
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region — One of the busiest operation centers of the US-led anti-ISIS coalition is located in the Kurdistan Region’s capital of Erbil where a seasoned US commander is applauding the Kurdish professionalism during trainings and their cooperation with Iraqi forces against ISIS.
“It’s really an Iraqi and a Kurd-led coalition,” US Army Col. Charles Costanza told Rudaw English. “We are really just enabling their operations.”
The armor officer had completed three previous tours in Iraq — dating back to his original deployment in the 2003 US invasion to oust the Baathist regime — prior to being given command five weeks ago at CJOC-Erbil, where about half of the coalition partners’ staff are US military.
Costanza also decides in a matter of seconds based on multiple factors whether or not to strike ISIS targets in northern Iraq after receiving a strike request from local partnered forces, who are being advised by the coalition.
“It’s two parts. The strikes are just a small part of what we do. The other piece we have is the engagement, really with the Kurds and the Pesh in particular to make sure we are supporting them the right way.”
The coalition has trained more than 26,000 Kurdish Peshmerga in weaponry, tactics and leadership skills. The Kurds stood up to the ISIS militants at Khazir bridge just 25 kilometers from Erbil in late-2014, as they fought for days against a better-equipped enemy prior to receiving US air support. A Peshmerga offensive then punched a hole in ISIS defenses surrounding Mosul in November 2016, allowing the Iraq army to advance into the country's second-largest city.
“The Kurds are very, very professional. Leaders at every level which is really refreshing to watch and see,” explained Costanza who has also been deployed in Bosnia-Herzegovnia. “It’s a well-trained organization; they value the training.”
The training that comes to the Kurds is all brought through the Kurdish Training Coordination Center (KTCC), which is several independent nations coming together with the common aim to train the Peshmerga. Twenty-three countries are represented at the facility in Erbil.
“All the training requirements really come through a dialogue — mainly the requirements come through the Ministry of Pesh,” said Costanza. “He says, ‘Here’s what I want my forces to be trained on and then our coalition partners develop those training programs and deliver a training package that’s tailored to what the Kurds say they need.”
A non-US soldier of the global anti-ISIS coalition works to coordinate with and continue to train Kurdish Peshmerga. Photo: Chris Johannes | Rudaw
Since 2014, the nearly 1,110-day-long coalition campaign has supported Kurdish Peshmerga and Iraqi security forces with more than 13,000 air and ground strikes across Iraq.
The Colonel said senior Kurdish Peshmerga and Iraqi forces officers are working in Erbil “side-by-side every day,” describing that as “really neat to watch.”
“They are friendly. They were War College [Kuliya Al-Askari] staff classmates, so they knew each other before all this kicked off, and I think the coordination is pretty well done there at that level,” Costanza said, explaining that Iraqi troop movements through the boundaries of the Kurdistan Region are done through the joint coordination center.
“There’s no issues or challenges there at all,” he added. “It’s pretty amazing.”
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared Mosul liberated on June 10, and the next urban battle will likely be to the west in Tal Afar.
“Iraqi security forces [now] have got some confidence that I think actually scares ISIS a little bit,” Costanza said, adding that because of this he expects operations in Tal Afar to be “quicker” in reference to ISF successes in the nine-month offensive to retake Mosul.
The coalition has continued nearly daily strikes against ISIS in the primarily Turkmen city of Tal Afar.
“They are clearly not comfortable,” said Costanza. “I think they know that they’re on their heels.”