A week ago, US officials announced that an offensive to clear the ISIS or Daesh forces from Mosul was to commence in a few months. The announcement by Gen. Austin 5 days ago ends speculative discussions of this operation which began this fall, and gives substance to preparations starting in December of last year. Timetables are unclear, but it might be auspicious to counterattack roughly by early summer, coinciding in the public mind with the anniversary of the sudden reverse of the Iraqi Army in Mosul in June of last year.
Daesh has already begun to dig in, according to a report from the Institute for the Study of War, apparently taking bids to construct a defensive ditch around Mosul. There’s nothing funny about Daesh ringing Mosul with a moat: they are also demolishing important bridges into the city, and likely, if insurgent preparations in Fallujah in 2005 are any indication, they will barricade themselves in well-populated urban cordons, knocking through walls and bricking up entrances. In order to throw Iraqi Army and Kurdish Peshmerga forces off-balance, Daesh has also coordinated attacks along the main roads running to Mosul and may be attempting to draw Peshmerga fighters off by lightening thrusts against Kurdish areas near Arbil.
Daesh governance in Mosul itself has been a mixed bag: some images propagated by Daesh itself show the city of a million or more functioning regularly, with some recent additions like a ban on smoking and regular and mandated religious education for children. Life, to some extent, has continued, and it is in Daesh’s interest to serve the public needs in order to maintain internal security. However, other sources, out of Daesh control, tell of skyrocketing prices and the commandeering of public spaces like hospitals for military purposes by abusive fighters. Public administration has kept the lights on and water flowing, though only intermittently. Desiring not to place the citizens under Daesh rule in too much duress, the Coalition has been selective about targeting, lest they drive the citizens fully into the arms of their occupiers, but the battles in nearby Kurdish areas have taken their toll, and strategic control of waterways (and filtration plants) have had impacts on the city’s public health and access to clean water. Mosul and its environs have seen reprisal attacks and brutal crackdowns on local resistance. Daesh has put a lot of resources into commanding Mosul and Iraq’s north, and it is unrealistic to imagine they will abandon it to the forces they took it from less than a year ago.
Taking the city will, realistically, take months rather than weeks. The barriers, roadblocks, and ditches are as much to keep the population in as the enemy out, and in order to prevent outcry, the Iraqi and Peshmerga forces will need to clear neighborhoods systematically without doing the expedient thing of flattening them with artillery or airstrikes (which the Coalition will likely not allow on urban targets). If Daesh intends to make a stand in Mosul, it will likely not do so just to fanatically fight to the death (though, certainly, they can use that to their advantage in propaganda), but also to give more time for local counterattacks outside Mosul to threaten Shi’a sites or Baghdad, which has kept the regenerating Iraqi forces on the defensive since the summer and made them patently unwilling to go on the offensive. Attempts to show up the Iraqi Army as the harbingers of Baghdad’s Shi’a tyranny may not be as potent as they were now Maliki is gone, though Sunni tribes who are skeptical of government intentions to protect or arm them against Daesh may prove intractable allies.
Speaking of allies, the next question will be the role of US forces in the struggle. Will they simply provide the guns, ammo, and the current 2,300 advisers, or will US formations enter the fray? There are military expediencies in direct control that are prompting some like Senator McCain to put more boots on the ground: American forces acting in small teams or as “tip of the spear” forces might be able to lead or support the operation, and the expertise of American special forces in urban environments has certainly proven effective before (see the participation of SEAL Platoons in clearing Ramadi in 2006-7). American professional soldiers have the training and the dedication to withstand a long urban operation, and certainly it is easier to dictate what happens when you control the boots on the ground directly as opposed to just advising them and giving them air cover (vital as it may be).
However, the key to such an approach is the size of these forces and their ease of deployment and redeployment. In order to prevent a sizable logistics and operational footprint, American forces will have to embed with their allies, and to expand operations it will be necessary to expand operational bases and depots in Iraq itself. While possible in Kurdistan, the lack of safe corridors to these areas (with Iranian-backed and unfriendly militias on the roads from bases in Kuwait) will make amassing and sustaining these forces both expensive (almost purely air-lift) and risky. While it seems a no-brainer to use the more competent force, the lesson of expeditionary intervention in unfriendly areas is that the more goes in, the harder it is for more to move forward or get out, especially as the rear areas are filled with angry remnants of Jaysh al Mahdi operating as “Peace Brigades” who will not likely be happy observing a flow of American personnel and supplies to the north (especially with embedded Iranian commanders in the ranks).
Strategically speaking, less may be more. Already, Canadian and American trainers, in addition to training Iraqi Army forces, have trained northern resistance fighters, and these may allow for exploitation of local successes with resistance fighters after the insertion of special forces cadres. If American advisers, schooled in COIN tactics from the latter stage of the Iraq War, are leading the way, allied forces will clear areas and hold them against counterattacks while restoring services and providing aid. Western resources will be vital to rebuilding areas under Iraqi or Peshmerga control, as will efforts to combat the same corruption and abuses that made northern Iraq a surprisingly easy target for Daesh last summer. While these approaches will take longer then sending in the Marines, they also prevent Daesh from a key propaganda victory of turning this into an Western Imperialist siege combined with their already effective propaganda against a siege of an Safavid (Iranian) Army in Iraqi Camo.
The tactical challenge will then be one of getting the Iraqi Army ready for the high-contact, attrition-assured struggle for Mosul, one that may take months of painful, intensive, and harrowing urban combat and stabilizing operations. It will be a challenge of deploying an institution that can distribute money and aid to Mosul’s displaced residents during the siege (and do so without the massive corruption Iraqi officials have been famous for), and one that can convince Mosul’s populations that Baghdad and the Kurds have their interests at heart, so that Mosul will be more “liberated” then re-taken. In point of fact, it won’t be the first time Iraqi Forces have done so. In 2008, the Iraqi Army performed a similar offensive against Daesh’s forerunner, al Qaeda in Iraq or AQI operating around Mosul. It will be important this time, however, it will be necessary to prove to the population that the Army is ready to stay and fight to protect them.
These challenges are daunting: attempting to do things by timetable in Iraq has often yielded poor results, or at best superficial ones. While Iraqi troops are certainly capable of doing so, liberating Mosul will require tactical and operational fortitude, something which takes time to develop. The two Iraqi Divisions assigned to the attack are to receive four to six weeks of specialized training according to a Wall Street Journal article. The challenge will then be to sustain the offensive, which may require additional forces which Baghdad has been hesitant to deploy to the north lest Daesh thrust towards Baghdad or counterattack against operations in the west. Sieges, historically, are long affairs, and the “clear, hold, and build” strategy of American counterinsurgency requires long, measured approaches to help isolate pockets of resistance in populations and create secure areas, literally block by block. If American advisers aren’t confident that their Iraqi forces will stand and fight, and be prepared to do so for weeks, then it isn’t a good sign.
Strategically, that isn’t the half of it. The endgame is also very important: politics doesn’t begin when war ends. Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq and home to a substantial Sunni population, will need to be a base against Daesh forces along the Syrian Border, and also will need to be governed in such a way as to bring in as many persons as possible into a peaceful political process to avoid a resurgence of insurgency in the province. Local anti-Daesh fighters (including some Kurds) will be likely allies where they can be found, but in order to drive Daesh out, it will be necessary to create some way to both protect local people and empower dialogues which can give local authority figures (tribal or otherwise) a sense they have some input into their future outside working with Daesh.
The allied forces (Iraqi Army, Coalition, and Peshmerga) will also need to have well-defined areas of operation and responsibility, and with open communications between them.Trust between the coalition forces is essential. As both Iraqi and Kurdish forces have priorities outside Mosul’s liberation, it may be easy to splinter them by attacking elsewhere (as Daesh has done in past) and to drive wedges between them during the prolonged siege operations. Already, complaints have surfaced about shortcomings in the Coalition’s communicative ability, and if these cripple the advance on Mosul, it will simply reinforce the sense of fatalism some commanders clearly have about the offensive.
Not only will demarcation areas be vital, so will be the promise of renewed political discussions over what Iraq’s future will look like once Daesh is driven from their Iraqi capital. There will be other struggles left: ones that may stretch over the border to Syria, and there will be the requirement to swiftly demobilize large militia organisations and prevent clashes between armed factions. If Mosul falls and Daesh recedes, Iraq will still have open wounds to treat. Hopefully, with Maliki gone, Abadi’s government will do a better job then Maliki’s did after the US withdrew in 2010, though what this would look like is still questionable, especially when oil revenues may be involved.
Even before all that, it is not hard to recognize that a lot is hinging on the success of this offensive. If Iraqi forces are ejected from Mosul again, especially in a rout, it will be a major blow to Coalition morale. It has political implications for US elections next year, especially as so many Republicans criticize President Obama’s slow “degrade and destroy” approach, which has not provided any decisive results thus far (though it never promised quick ones either). It might drive irreconcilable differences between Baghdad and Peshmerga political agendas, and it may embolden Shi’a political forces (with Iranian sanction) to threaten the new pluralist government. Daesh still has other strongholds and battlefields to entice foreign fighters to, and Mosul’s defense will likely be a focus for renewed efforts which could prove disastrous for the Coalition, even if their fighters are killed in the thousands (counting KIA, being a lesson of Vietnam apparently ignored by Sec. Kerry a few days ago).
Liberating Mosul will take lives, blood, money, determination, and time. Anyone expecting Daesh to crumble is to be applauded for their optimism, but resiliency is the name of the game. The world will watch Mosul carefully, and hopefully will see a day soon when the black flags are pulled down. However, the challenges are great, and Mosul will be a test for the coalition of foreign and local powers, one that hopefully they will meet.