Alaa al-Marjani / REUTERS A member of the Iraqi rapid response forces inspects a hospital damaged by a battle between Iraqi forces and Islamic State militants in the Wahda district of eastern Mosul, Iraq, January 2017.

The Fight for Mosul

Why It's Taking Longer Than Expected

As the battle to retake Mosul from the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) stretches into its fourth month, the Iraqi army has won applause from the far corners of the globe. U.S. Brigadier General Rick Uribe said the Iraqi forces are “at their peak” and “will continue to improve because of the lessons they are learning on a daily basis.” Nevertheless, the battle is expected to last many more months.

AN ISIS STRONGHOLD

In June 2014, ISIS captured Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city in the north, sending shock waves around the world. Within days, four Iraqi army divisions and police forces in four provinces collapsed, leaving ISIS in control of one-third of Iraq. Millions of civilians were displaced, and Christians were forced to leave. Within a month, ISIS would gain control of one-third of Syria as well and would declare an Islamic caliphate, the dream of every Islamist extremist. Soon ISIS was threatening Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan region, which provoked the United States to launch air raids to protect the city.

In the wake of its stunning early successes, approximately 40,000 terrorists from more than 100 countries traveled to Syria and Iraq to join ISIS. Its propaganda machine produced no fewer than 100 videos a month which were broadcast from tens of thousands of social media accounts. ISIS continues to make millions of dollars in Syria and Iraq, and its ground operations have expanded to Afghanistan, Cameroon, Chad, Egypt, Libya, Niger, Nigeria, and Tunisia.

Meanwhile, Mosul has remained the largest ISIS-controlled population center even throughout the Iraqi counteroffensive to retake it. It is near Syria, Turkey, and Kurdistan, is home to half of the former Iraqi army officers, and produces more grain and livestock than any other province in Iraq—the military and commodity resources from which ISIS draws its strength. If Mosul is not retaken, ISIS will never be defeated. If the city can be taken back, the group’s demise will be at hand.

Mosul has remained the largest ISIS-controlled population center even throughout the Iraqi counteroffensive to retake it.

A MISGUIDED PLAN

In an e-mail, a U.S. general who commanded American forces in Iraq praised the Iraqi counterterrorism forces for their performance in Mosul. “I think the operation has been quite impressive, albeit very hard fought and difficult, as are all battles in large cities where a significant effort is made to avoid killing civilians and damaging infrastructure,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he didn’t want to comment on the ongoing campaign.

But underneath the bright picture is an ugly reality: the long-awaited battle of Mosul rested on a broken strategic plan. It depended on the false assumption that ISIS would have been weakened after a series of defeats in Iraq and Syria over the last year and would therefore not fight for very long to hold the city. In this view, it was thought better not to isolate the city completely. Doing so would spare civilian lives and save military resources by letting ISIS fighters retreat and find their own escape routes from Mosul.

This plan for Mosul was the result of Iraqi-U.S. military cooperation, according to Kadhim al-Waeli, a special adviser for the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS until November 2016. It was devised by Lieutenant General Abdul Amir al-Lami, the overall commander of the Iraqi forces participating in the battle, and General Sean MacFarland, the commander of the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi ordered a reevaluation of the plan after about 100 Iraqi soldiers were killed or wounded in a battle in a Mosul hospital in early December. According to the U.S. Department of Defense, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, who visited Baghdad in the same month, reportedly discussed the change of military plans with Abadi.

Prior to the battle, Hisham al-Hashimi, an expert on ISIS at the Iraqi National Security Council, estimated that ISIS forces in Mosul numbered about 5,500 fighters. Rayan al-Hadidi, a political activist from Mosul, said that the terrorist group had fronted three special battalions armed with small arms in the city. These battalions had trained for more than a year to ward off an Iraqi storming of the city. Beyond street battalions, “there is also al Farouq Brigade, which is a tank brigade composed of former Iraqi army officers who use confiscated Iraqi and Syrian army tanks.” Hadidi also warned that ISIS had put together a company of 120 snipers to man the city’s rooftops.

In addition, Hadidi told me, another force of 400 foreign ISIS fighters called the inghimasyin were to deploy to the city. This force, led by Gulmurod Halimov, a former Tajik special forces colonel and ISIS’ most senior military commander, had trained for more than three months in the al-Ghabat area in Mosul. Hadidi’s sources stated that a company operating ISIS’ arsenal of short-range missiles contributed about 300 missiles, including 200 locally made ones. In addition to that, no fewer than 300 car bombs and 150 foreign suicide bombers had joined ISIS’ suicide force, and another 700 fighters had noted their readiness to use their explosive vests.

“In addition to all of these groups, there are five other ISIS military formations in Mosul: the army of Usra [difficult situations], the breakthrough company, the supporting force, the clashes company, and the mortar company. The five units are composed of about 2,000 fighters,” Hadidi concluded. For some reason, though, the Iraqi and U.S. militaries thought that these ISIS forces—numbering about 5,500—would run rather than fight seriously.

A SHAKY START

The battle to retake Mosul began on October 17, 2016. During the first two weeks of the campaign, the Iraqi government forces moved rapidly to reach the city, liberating hundreds of villages and many towns on the way. Nevertheless, things slowed down once the army reached Mosul. There, the invading forces were able to clear an average of only one neighborhood, of the many dozens still held, per day. ISIS’ tactics involving tunnels, booby-trapped buildings, burning gasoline in trenches, hidden bombs, snipers, suicide attackers, and car bombs have complicated the liberation mission. As of today, they have been able to clear only two-thirds of the eastern side of Mosul, a far slower and more modest achievement than expected.

Members of the Iraqi Army fire towards Islamic State militant positions at the south of Mosul, Iraq, December 2016.

Members of the Iraqi Army fire towards Islamic State militant positions at the south of Mosul, Iraq, December 2016. 

Even so, 2,137 Iraqi soldiers, policemen, and militiamen have been killed in and around Mosul during the first 50 days of the battle. About 4,500 others have been wounded. These numbers were provided by sources in the Iraqi military hospitals. Official Iraqi sources have criticized the number of dead as being exaggerated, but they have admitted that the tally of the wounded might be close to reality. 

In the early days of the campaign, the Iraqi government asked the civilians inside Mosul to stay home and not try to evacuate the city. It was an attempt to avoid an exodus of a million civilians, whom neither the Iraqi government nor the international aid organizations were adequately equipped to help. But ISIS has used the civilians in the area as human shields. About 1,000 have been killed in the battle thus far, mostly by ISIS.

Because Baghdad expected ISIS fighters to simply flee the city, government forces did not surround Mosul before the battle started in order to cut off ISIS’s supply line from Tal Afar to the west. In fact, as of today, ISIS’ Mosul stronghold remains connected to Tal Afar. Nevertheless, other Iraqi officers disagree that this has made a significant difference. “It is not easy to encircle a city where the enemy has spread out into its rural surroundings,” Saad Alobaidy, a former military intelligence officer, told me.   

Similarly, the military did not cut roads connecting Tal Afar to Syria before the mission to retake Mosul was launched. Only by the end of the fifth week of the battle were the routes finally closed. “Not cutting the ISIS supply line through the Syrian lands leading to al-Raqqah was a misjudgment of the situation by the Iraqi command,” Waleed Mohammed Jassem, the Iraqi general who was tasked with establishing the Ninth Mechanized Division after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, told me. Karim al-Tleibawi, a member of the Iraqi Special Forces, explained that cutting that road was no easy task. “Keeping some forces near Baghdad and in Anbar Province for fear of its fall while other forces were preparing to attack Hawija and protecting Kirkuk [the oil-rich city in the north] in addition to the long supply lines from Baghdad have all contributed to the lack of advance in northwestern Iraq.” Tleibawi now serves at the command of the Popular Mobilization Forces, the Shiite militia fighting on behalf of the government.

Because Mosul wasn’t placed under siege before the battle, the Iraqi government forces could neither stop ISIS from resupplying nor attack it from the western parts of the city. Today, the assault is still being waged only from the east.

Mosul’s five bridges connect its east side to its west side. They were neither seized nor destroyed in the first few days of the battle. By the end of the fifth week, after the Iraqi and U.S. militaries realized that ISIS was not withdrawing and was continuing to use the bridges to transport supplies, the forces at last came up with a strategy for the passes. The last bridge was finally destroyed at the end of December.

Atheel al-Nujaifi, Mosul’s former governor who now commands a Turkish-backed force northeast of the city, thinks the neglect of the bridges had to do with the direction from which the Iraqi government forces attacked the city. “They chose the direction of the most populated areas to get into the city center. They neglected the northern front that could lead to the bridges without passing through populated neighborhoods.” To be sure, there are those who believe that the U.S.-Iraqi strategy was appropriate; a Mosul blogger writing under a pseudonym contends that “bombing the bridges from the outset could have harmed the civilians living under siege.” 

PROBLEMS IN LEADERSHIP

For about 18 months, from April 2015 to October 2016, the commander in charge of the Mosul campaign was Major General Najim Jabouri, a military official who had never graduated from a general staff college or even commanded a battalion.

Under the overall commander of the Mosul campaign were more than 100,000 troops of the Iraqi military, of which only a small portion was trained in urban warfare. Moreover, only half of those were deployed in the first two months and a half of the battle, and 400 of them were killed in action during the first 50 days of battle.

Yet prior to the battle, Jabouri said at least four times that his soldiers were ready to recapture Mosul. “The forces deployed in Makhmur are fully ready to start the battle of Mosul after receiving the necessary training, and they were equipped with arms and equipment,” he told an Iraqi newspaper in January 2016. Despite their lack of progress, Jabouri continued to insist for two months after the battle started that his forces were ready.

On multiple occasions, moreover, he predicted an uprising that would erupt in Mosul once the battle began. That, too, never happened. Nor did his suggestion that ISIS’ forces in Mosul would collapse quickly bear out. In four different instances, he told reporters that ISIS’ forces had collapsed, even though they hadn’t. Perhaps that is why in October 2016, after 18 months of Jabouri’s command, the Iraqi leadership chose Lieutenant General Abdul Amir al-Lami, the assistant chief of staff of the Iraqi army for operations, to take over. Although the new commander’s qualification to lead the campaign is not in question, some voices inside the Iraqi military have talked about the drawbacks of his leadership style. “He is a competent, observant, keen, and courageous Special Forces officer,” Khalid Gargur, a former director general of media at the Iraqi Ministry of Defense, told me. “But he rushes in making crucial decisions.”

A QUESTIONABLE TIMELINE?

Several Iraqis I spoke to think that the timeline for retaking Mosul was chosen by the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama to boost the position of Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton before the presidential election. “The timing of the battle was American. I think it was connected with the timing of the American elections,” Mouayad Alwindawi, a former major general at the Iraqi General Security Directorate, related. Others who are closer to the matter, including Special Adviser Waeli, deny that conspiracy theory. “The international coalition is being asked for opinions, but they do not make decisions. The timing was chosen by the Iraqi government and the Joint Operations Command,” said Waeli. “Maybe the Americans postponed the battle for 18 days because they were waiting for the arrival of the Apache helicopters and also to prepare the American artillery.”

Goran Tomasevic / REUTERS An Iraqi soldier uses his rifle to hold up a helmet as a decoy during clashes with Islamic State fighters in Al-Qasar, South-East of Mosul, Iraq, November 2016.

At any rate, the battle was anticipated for months before it began; the Iraqi prime minister had promised to bring back the city by the end of 2016. And any advance warning of the start date “likely had minimal impact on the conduct of the fighting,” Peter Mansoor, a retired U.S. Army colonel who commanded a brigade in Iraq and served as the chief of staff for General David Petraeus, commander of the multinational forces in Iraq, told me. “ISIS knew the Iraqi army was going to fight for Mosul before the end of 2016 and made its preparations accordingly.”

The Iraqi military, though, wasn’t as prepared. It didn’t expect the fight to drag on through the winter. And the air force and the helicopters have been less effective than planners anticipated thanks to unexpected rains, a lack of available air controllers, and restricted rules of engagement because of the heavy presence of civilians.

THE ENDGAME

For months, press and think tank reports warned of the lack of a plan to govern Mosul after the liberation. But that assumed that Mosul would, in fact, be liberated. As 2017 starts, there is no actual timetable for finishing the hardest battle against ISIS since the group’s founding. Iraqi intelligence sources estimate that 2,000 ISIS fighters have been killed and wounded on the east side, leaving about 500 more there and another 4,000 in the city’s west.

As 2017 starts, there is no actual timetable for finishing the hardest battle against ISIS since the group’s founding.

Although Mosul’s east side could be cleared within weeks, the west side could take many more months to be liberated. Iraq’s federal police forces, which were expected to clear the western side, have joined the battle on the east side to aid the counterterrorism forces. In the coming months, U.S. Special Forces integrate further with the Iraqi forces, which could transform what was meant to be an advisory role into a de facto fighting mission. In doing so, eight years of the Obama administration’s promises that U.S. ground forces will not fight in Iraq will be broken.

Although taking Mosul from ISIS will be the most important strategic blow to the terror organization to date, the fight against ISIS will most likely persist for a few more years. As long as it does, it will continue to drain Iraq’s resources and limit the country’s chances for reconstruction and reconciliation.

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