Taking Mosul back from ISIS will test the possibilities of a comprehensive Middle East strategy.
One of the things we’ve been banging on about at the blog has been Donald Trump’s consistent insistence that Mosul be taken back from ISIS by surprise. It’s been one of his rallying cries: we’re so stupid that we’re telling the enemy we plan to take back a city! Our generals are idiots, Obama is an idiot, everyone is an idiot except for me. He honestly thinks we can do this by surprise, and even used the phrase “sneak attack” during the debates, like we could just swoop in and “take out ISIS” and win. It’s a shocking (note: not shocking) lack of understanding regarding even the basics of how military operations work, their
It’s a shocking (note: not shocking) lack of understanding regarding even the basics of how military operations work, their overall purpose, or the strategy behind, well, anything. He’s upset that there are reports that ISIS commanders are fleeing, as if leaving the city more defenseless is a bad thing (in his mind, any battle that he leads would be quick and easy and everyone who was supposed to get got would get got). It’s remarkable not just for how irresponsible it is politically, but for how, when looked at apolitically, demonstrates the impossible depth of ignorance in one of two people who may be President. (Probably not, but still)
Anyway, if you want to know what the looming, potentially catastrophic battle for Mosul might look like, here’s a really good primer by Peter Apps for Reuters.
For the United States, operating against IS in Iraq is in many ways easier than in Syria. Washington’s alliances are clear, and it knows it wants to win back the country for the government in Baghdad. That makes Mosul an easier target than the smaller IS capital of Raqqa, at least diplomatically speaking. Should Raqqa fall, it might well be retaken by Assad. And if U.S.-backed largely Kurdish Syrian rebels were to do the job, that might deepen existing differences with Turkey.
It’s unclear, however, whether the Mosul offensive will work. Getting the city back without a humanitarian catastrophe – and without further exacerbating existing ethnic and sectarian divisions – will prove a colossal challenge, one Islamic State will do everything it can to make harder.
Iraqi government forces, experts say, have improved dramatically in the two years of war with IS, particularly in the difficult art of close-quarter street battles. U.S., British and other foreign special operations forces have been fighting in Iraq and similar environments for more than a decade, the Iraqi Kurds even longer.
The battle plan for Mosul has been two years in the making. In many cases, the plan is for units from different ethnic backgrounds to be assigned to the most similar neighborhoods of the city. That means those leading the assault into predominantly Sunni areas – which make up much of Mosul – should come from broadly similar backgrounds. So should those tasked with minority Kurdish, Shi’ite and other ethnic areas.
This is an enormously complex and subtle plan (as subtle as can be for plans to invade a city of a million residents currently in the grip of a well-trained and heavily-armed apocalyptic death cult). It’s hard to overstate how difficult this will be, and how important it is. Mosul is central to their dreams of Caliphate, and even if top commanders are fleeing (which as Apps point out is part of the strategy), there will still be a lot of dedicated fighters.
But as with the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the potentially bigger challenge is what comes next. Mosul is a key city for both Iraq and the Kurds (who at this point have to be thought of as two separate political entities: that ship has long since sailed), and both will be vying to be the dominant force in the post-ISIS city. These are two mutually antagonistic rivals who are brought together through a distant 3rd-party intermediary to fight a temporary enemy.
Iraq is currently more of a state than Syria, and more than Yemen, but it is precarious, and what we think of as a “state” may have to change. The battle for Mosul, and its aftermath, could be a watershed: how will the overlapping ethnic, historical, ecological, and political claims play out? Will we try to force a now-possibly-outdated state solution on the region? Or will we have the subtlety to try a new approach? And ultimately, does it matter what we try, or will the forces there prove too powerful? And, if so, how will the world react to that?
We’re entering a new era. In Syria, it is being born from bloody chaos, the kind that Iraq has seen for much of the last decade plus (the bloody stability of the Hussein years were the incubator; the invasion the trigger event). This may take a decade, decades, to shake out, or with skilled leadership, it could be relatively managed. I think we’ve ultimately run up against the limits of what the US can do, but there are ways to make for a better and less-violent transition to the next era.
One needent mention a looming trigger event next month that would ensure everything gets catastrophically worse.