FPI Bulletin: The Fight to Expel ISIS from Mosul

May 3, 2016

By FPI Policy Intern Kaitlyn Smithwick

Last weekend, protesters swarmed into the Green Zone in Baghdad, briefly occupying the parliament building and triggering concerns that the government may fall. The protesters withdrew peacefully by Sunday, leaving behind new questions about the Iraqi government’s ability to prosecute its war against the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh). Of particular importance is a planned offensive against Mosul, a massive city which President Obama describes as one of the extremists “primary strongholds.” If the offensive goes ahead, its success will depend on the readiness of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) to conduct such an ambitious operation. That readiness will depend, in turn, on the rate and effectiveness of American training as well as the extent of the challenges the ISF must address in other parts of Iraq.

Setting Expectations

The fall of Mosul in June 2014 demonstrated the ability of the Islamic State to inflict devastating blows on the Iraqi military, with nearly a third of Iraq’s Army and police divisions melting away over 48 hours. Moreover, by holding on to a city with an estimated 1-1.5 million inhabitants, ISIS has shown that it can control a sizable population while extracting the resources necessary to advance its cause. Recapturing Mosul is both a military and a political necessity for the anti-ISIS coalition.

In February, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart, warned, “Mosul will be a complex operation… We may be able to begin the campaign, do some isolation operations around Mosul, but securing or taking Mosul is an extensive operation and not something I see in the next year or so.” Stewart’s warning contrasted sharply with Vice President Joe Biden’s bullish comments just a few days earlier, "I promise you, after [the recent success in] Ramadi, watch what happens now in Raqqa in Syria and what happens in Mosul, by end of this year."

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has been similarly ambitious, vowing last December to destroy ISIS by the end of 2016. "We are coming to liberate Mosul, which will be the fatal blow to Daesh," he said. At one point, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter sounded almost as optimistic as Abadi, telling journalists that President Obama wanted the fight to be over before he left office. “I’m confident that we’ll do it. We have an operational plan now,” he added. However, during a recent trip to Iraq, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford, struck a more cautious note. While U.S. and Iraqi forces were already “tightening a noose” around Mosul, “It will take time,” Dunford said. “This is incredibly difficult and complex. This is a million people in a complex urban terrain with a determined enemy who has had a long time to prepare. This is going to be a tough fight.” 

While projecting confidence, President Obama recently hedged his bets by saying, “My expectation is that by the end of the year, we will have created the conditions whereby Mosul will eventually fall.” Yet that was before the turmoil in the Green Zone.

Iraqi Security Forces Under Strain

After months of hard fighting, Iraqi forces pushed ISIS out of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, last December. Ramadi is roughly one-fifth the size of Mosul. In March, Col. Steve Warren, a DOD spokesman, estimated the need for “somewhere in the ballpark of eight army brigades for that assault into Mosul.” With 3,000 troops in a standard Iraqi brigade, that would amount to 24,000 troops. In addition, Col. Warren said, the operation would require the support of “some” Kurdish peshmerga brigades as well as troops from the elite Counterterrorism Service (CTS). At the moment, CTS forces are committed to ongoing counter-ISIS operations in Anbar.

Retired U.S. Army General Jack Keane has asserted there are simply not enough troops available for the mission. “They don't have them,” Keane said, “That is the harsh reality right now. The numbers are inadequate to take Mosul and the environment that is around it. Taking Ramadi was six months in the making. For Mosul, given the size, that is not realistic." Furthermore, Mosul is not the only ISIS redoubt in northern Iraq, even though it is the largest. As Col. Warren noted, the entire fifty-mile corridor “between Tal Afar and Mosul, that is really probably the thickest, strongest stronghold of ISIL in Iraq.” The Associated Press (AP) also reported, as Iraqi “troops advance against IS, the government's front lines and supply lines have been extended — increasingly leaving troops exposed to anti-ISIS counter attacks.”

The Baghdad government also has vulnerabilities far behind the front lines that may draw troops away from Mosul. As an AP correspondent observed, “Islamic State fighters are waging a diversion campaign of bloody suicide attacks in Baghdad and elsewhere. Their aim is to force Iraq's already overburdened security forces to spread even thinner to protect the capital and other cities rather than prepare the Mosul operation.” In addition to suicide attacks, political turmoil in Baghdad may compromise the effort to assemble a force capable of assaulting Mosul. In March, one Iraqi commander reported the transfer of four battalions from Anbar back to Baghdad because of the instability. After protesters swarmed the Green Zone this past weekend, the government may have to devote far greater resources to securing the capital.

Clearing a Path to Mosul

In both the U.S. and Iraq, a number of senior military leaders have advised that Anbar province in western Iraq needs to be secured before the Mosul operation can proceed.  Lt. Gen. Stewart testified that Iraqis “have to secure the Hit-Haditha corridor [in Anbar] in order to have some opportunity to fully encircle and bring all the forces against Mosul.”  Gen. Abdul Ghani al-Assadi, commander of the Iraqi CTS, said he “told officials the ideal time to start [a] Mosul operation is after the end of Anbar operations,” because this would allow the CTS to provide its full attention to the Mosul campaign.  

In April, Iraqi forces reclaimed the city of Hit at the southern end of the Hit-Haditha corridor. ISF commanders believe that retaking Hit will cut off “Islamic State supply lines and [link] up government forces to the west and north of Baghdad in preparation for the eventual assault on Mosul.”  "Hit is the support line from Syria for Daesh," said one CTS commander, "All of Daesh's logistical support in Anbar comes from that place."  Nonetheless, Anbar will not be secure even after the Hit-Haditha corridor is retaken, since ISIS continues to control the Euphrates River Valley west of Haditha as well holding onto the city of Fallujah, not far from Baghdad.

Although operations in Anbar are still underway, preparatory efforts known as “shaping operations” have begun near Mosul. Since ISIS controls a lengthy span of the Tigris River Valley south of Mosul, Iraqi and Coalition forces will stage their operations out of a base near Makhmur, a town on the edge of Kurdish territory southeast of Mosul. Maj. Gen. Naim al-Jubbouri, the commander in charge of the Mosul offensive, said the operation will proceed in stages.  The first stage involved a move west from Makhmur to Qayyarah along the Tigris River, which will cut off ISIS’s main artery to the south.  Qayyarah also has an airfield located within its vicinity.  Although this first stage kicked off in late March, Iraqi forces quickly ran into firm Islamic State resistance not far from Makhmur.

Can the U.S. Military Make a Difference?

During a mid-April visit to Iraq, the secretary of defense announced several measures that President Obama had approved in order to augment the American military role in the campaign to retake Mosul. First, the U.S. would send additional advisers to Iraq and place them with lower level units, closer to the front lines.  Next, the U.S. will deploy Apache attack helicopters to Iraq, a move that Prime Minister Abadi had opposed when it was first suggested. Secretary Carter also announced that the U.S. would send some additional artillery and provide financial assistance to the Kurdish peshmerga. Michael Knights of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy believes that placing advisers at lower levels has the potential to “make a massive difference.”

Nonetheless, the outcome of the battle to retake Mosul remains highly uncertain. While the military difficulties ahead are substantial, many of the political challenges are just as significant. Paul Salem of the Middle East Institute writes, “The battle for Tikrit took two months; the battle for Ramadi, four. And these were much smaller towns with many fewer ISIS fighters.” On the political front, the Baghdad government has to work with the Kurds and “coordinate with local tribal and communal armed groups that are key to giving the campaign a local liberationist aspect.” Shiite militias and their patrons in Teheran are also eager to participate in the offensive, lest others claim the credit for saving Iraq from the Islamic State. If Mosul does fall, the challenge of shaping its post-ISIS order will create new dilemmas. Yet the greatest uncertainty remains the fate of the Abadi government in Baghdad. If it falls apart, then all of the preparations for retaking Mosul may swiftly become irrelevant.  

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