The Fight Against Islamic State: Operation Mosul

As plans to liberate Mosul from the grip of Islamic State control begin to surface, Iraq and the international coalition risk acting too soon. US Central Command (CENTCOM) recently revealed parts of their plans for the attack on Mosul, however, it misses significant components. These being the capability of Iraq’s Security Forces to undertake such an offensive, and the need to win over Mosul’s local community. Without addressing such factors, such an operation will most likely meet with disaster.

Defeating the Islamic State, in Iraq, must happen in phases.  In the first instance, urban areas will have to be regained. Second, the large rural areas of Iraq will have to be brought back under control. Thirdly, local actors will still have to combat a prolonged and difficult insurgency, especially while there is no end in sight for the conflict in Iraq’s neighbor, Syria. The first phase, which we have yet to reach, will require multiple complex military operations in order for it to be successful, and will require highly effective ground forces.

Not a numbers game

It is widely held that, as an attacker, you need a force three times the size of those defending. The US has clearly calculated this, and more. They expect that five brigades of the Iraqi army will be utilised in the liberation of Mosul with many more in support. They also estimate that there are 2,000 Islamic State fighters in the city. If you calculate that an Iraqi brigade roughly totals 2,000 troops, you have a five to one advantage. However, these are just numbers, and numbers on this battleground have already proven to be worthless.

Multiple failed attempts to regain cities such as Tikrit have shown the difficulty of the task at hand. Hence, before any effective strategy can be put in place, a strong fighting force on the ground is vital to any military strategy against the Islamic State; not just strong in numbers but well trained and efficient. However, after years of corruption and neglect Iraq’s security forces are once again in need of rebuilding. At present, the US are training nine brigades of the Iraqi Army and three brigades of Kurdish Peshmerga.

The slow road to Mosul

The actions of Kurdish Peshmerga forces in recent weeks have shown that Mosul is a key target. Pushing forward in areas to the North and West of Mosul they are looking to isolate the city. Now surrounded on three sides, and cut off from the Islamic State held town of Tel Afar, the city is sequestered. Peshmerga control of the Mosul to Tel Afar highway cuts-off the city from the Islamic State badlands of Syria. Military analysts in both Iraq and the West will be monitoring the situation in the city closely.

The Islamic State is already making its preparations for the coming, and much publicised, Mosul offensive. Islamic State’s notorious tactic of mining and laying IED’s will no doubt slow any advances towards the city. Islamic State has a history of booby-trapping everything in sight, from roads to houses and walls. The blowing of bridges and digging of trenches, in Mosul shows that they are preparing for a siege. Such a large urban area will involve chaotic neighborhood-to-neighborhood and street-to-street fighting. Who is ready and able to undertake such a task is a question that has remained unanswered.

Planning is vital to any operation of such scale, but not just militarily. The humanitarian situation in Northern Iraq and the Kurdistan Region is already at its limit. The UN strategic response plan for supporting IDP’s is only 37% funded, with the international body still looking for $1.4 billion dollars. Further waves of displaced peoples will only exacerbate the current situation. Any sustained fighting in Northern Iraq will most likely push the displaced to seek refuge in the Kurdistan Region, if not, across the border in Syria. Without an all-round strategy, the fallout from such an offensive may be disastrous. The extent to which the UN’s coordinating body and the Kurdistan Regional Government have prepared for such an offensive is unclear.

A Sunni role

An equally thorny issue is the participation of Sunnis, both militarily and politically. Sunni participation in the liberation of Mosul is being organized at the Nineveh Liberation Camp, on the outskirts of Erbil. The Liberation Camp is supported by Mosul’s Governor, Atheel Nujayfi and comprises elements of the Iraqi police force and security services that fled Mosul back in June. The ousted Governor claims to have a force of 7,000 police officers ready to launch an offensive on the city. While their drive and determination are undeniable, reports suggest that they are under-equipped. The prospects of using such a force to spearhead an attack on Mosul could likely lead to a second shocking and embarrassing defeat for such troops, in under a year.

With no political solutions on the table it is also unlikely that the local Sunni populous would support such an operation. Fearful of Baghdad and the rise in power of Shia armed groups, there needs to be a clear political framework for increased Sunni participation and engagement. Without this, Iraq’s Sunni communities will remain wary of their Shia counterparts. If there is no popular support for the attacking force, the likelihood of post-conflict stability is doubtful.

Thus, even substantial numbers of troops are highly unlikely to take back Mosul in a clean and effective manner. Cooperation is needed between the Iraqi Army, Kurdish Peshmerga Forces, local tribal elements, the international coalition, and the local communities inside Mosul itself. Even then such an operation would have to be vast. Mosul will not fall in the same way as it did in June 2014, when a few thousand Islamic State (then ISIS) fighters took control of the city. While comparisons are not always valid, it is important to note, that to take back Fallujah in 2004, one of the bloodiest chapters of the Iraq War, it took 10,500 US troops, accompanied by 2,000 members of the Iraqi Security Forces, and an 850 strong force from the United Kingdom.  While one should not overestimate the capabilities of the Islamic State, underestimate them at your peril.

An operation on such a scale should be deferred. While this runs the risk of letting fighters in Mosul entrench themselves further, the benefits will outweigh the costs. Isolating the city further, clearing strategic routes for ground troops, increased training, and clarification of the role of the international coalition are all benefits from further abeyance. Ultimately no operation can take place until areas such as Tikrit and Baiji are cleared, providing the southern supply-lines needed to attack the city. Any military operation in Mosul will be messy and incur numerous casualties. The question should be about damage limitation, not speed.

The fight against Islamic State will be a slow and difficult process. While many admit it will take a multi-year effort to combat the Islamic State, each small step has to be carefully measured; patience is needed. The world is looking for a quick fix to a complex and dynamic situation. A spring push-back, with the Iraqi Army in the lead, looks to be ill-fated.

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About MERI:  The Middle East Research Institute is Iraq’s leading policy-research institute and think tank. It is an independent, entirely grant-funded not-for-profit organisation, based in Erbil, Kurdistan Region.  Its mission is to contribute to the process of nation-building, state-building and democratisation via engagement, research, analysis and policy debates.

MERI’s main objectives include promoting and developing human rights, good governance, the rule of law and social and economic prosperity. MERI conduct high impact, high quality research (including purpose-based field work) and has published extensively in areas of: human rights, government reform, international politics, national security, ISIS, refugees, IDPs, minority rights (Christians, Yezidis, Turkmen, Shabaks, Sabi mandeans), Baghdad-Erbil relations, Hashd Al-Shabi, Peshmarga, violence against women, civil society. MERI engages policy- and decision-makers, the civil society and general public via publication, focused group discussions and conferences (MERI Forum).

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