Islamic State Won’t Keep Iraqi Armies Out of Mosul
An offensive to retake the sprawling city will not be simple, but the terror group might have a harder time preventing it
by ROBERT BECKHUSEN
On Oct. 16, more than two years after Islamic State’s invasion and occupation of Mosul, tens of thousands of soldiers with the Iraqi army and Kurdish peshmerga launched a combined offensive to recapture the city — their biggest challenge yet.
The armies’ will likely succeed, at least in the short term. Islamic State appears to be vastly outnumbered, possessing around 3,000 to 4,500 fighters in Mosul, according to the Pentagon. The Iraqi and Kurdish armies will probably grind out a victory, and the militants will lose … eventually.
And while Mosul’s size poses an unprecedentedly difficult problem for the attacking troops, it could pose a greater challenge for the defenders, who must stretch themselves thin to keep the invading armies out.
We can also glean several clues as to how Islamic State might try to defend Mosul, based on previous examples and how the current offensive is unfolding. It’s possible the battle might not end in a conventional manner, where two armies fight toe-to-toe.
However, the group can switch up its methods — and the Iraqi and Kurdish troops could easily make mistakes which Islamic State might exploit, wrecking the prospects for a lasting peace.
Islamic State is a much reduced version of its former self. Years of fighting and U.S.-led air strikes have taken a brutal toll, killing tens of thousands of fighters and destroying hundreds of their vehicles and heavy weapons.
However, the militants remain well-armed and adept on the battlefield — and the group’s most committed fighters possess suicidal determination. Since Islamic State devolves a great deal of decision-making to field commanders, it is tactically unpredictable.
In urban areas, the militants rely on tunnels and buildings to avoid coalition warplanes, which fly above the range of anti-aircraft weapons.
Most dangerous of all is the group’s expertise with improvised explosive devices, which it buries in fields, beneath roads and inside structures … in vast numbers. IEDs are the number one cause of Kurdish military casualties, and Islamic State has had more than two years in Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, to plan and prepare booby traps.
There’s a cunning logic to the group’s method of warfare. Because Islamic State is invariably outnumbered, it relies on a bewildering mix of delaying tactics and fanatical counter-attacks to intimidate enemies into believing it is stronger than it really is.
And curiously, during previous Iraqi offensives where the group was on the defense, it chose to actively contest rural areas — which flanked the urban centers — with snipers, mortars, IEDs and teams of suicide fighters.
As a result, the Iraqi troops and Kurdish peshmerga are moving cautiously and deliberately toward Mosul, with few apparent gaps in their lines as coalition warplanes and drones orbit overhead.
Only a few thousand troops from both armies are participating in this initial phase of the offensive, aimed at clearing a series of villages in the rural, open scrublands to Mosul’s east.
But the total number of participating Iraqi troops and Kurdish peshmerga could eventually rise to more than 50,000, with 500 American troops in a support role. As the offensive began, U.S. and French artillery lobbed high-explosive shells from a distance. Coalition warplanes bombed tunnel entrances, transmitter towers and militants on the ground.
The Kurdish fighters have already run into Islamic State’s delaying tactics. In a village east of Mosul, an Islamic State suicide-bomb vehicle roared from behind a group of buildings toward a line of peshmerga armored vehicles, ramming one of them before blowing it up in a tremendous explosion.
However, “initial resistance from Islamic State fighters has been less than anticipated,” the New York Times reported, citing Pentagon sources.
U.S. Air Force Col. John Dorrian, a U.S. military spokesman, tweeted that the peshmerga and Iraqi troops are “reaching objectives on or ahead of schedule.”
The peshmerga have advanced six or seven miles at the front line’s farthest point, roughly halfway to the city’s urban outskirts. But to fully encircle Mosul will require clearing several dozen villages — then fighting for the city of around 1.5 million people … and dealing with potentially hundreds of thousands of refugees.
“If the Islamic State is to use the tactics of mining, tunneling, and fortifying within Mosul that it has utilized in far less significant towns in the Ninewa hinterlands, not only with the recapture of the urban realm be a bloody ordeal, but its rebuilding will likely be a perilous project if private homes in the city’s warrens are littered with IEDs,” analyst Henry Flood wrote in the August edition of CTC Sentinel, the monthly newsletter of West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center.
Islamic State could also create long-term challenges for the occupying armies. If Mosul falls and the Iraqi and Kurdish troops fail to fully secure the outlying villages, Islamic State could reoccupy them as staging points for raids … on Mosul.
A divided occupation force subjected to an insurgency carries enormous risks.
Avoiding this scenario depends heavily on whether the disparate forces — underlying sectarian tensions an ever-present concern — can work together during weeks or months of hard fighting. While the Iraqi army, which is largely Arab, should lead the assault into the city itself, Mosul contains several Kurdish neighborhoods which could emerge as a source of tension.
The Iraqi and Kurdish armies have been quiet on operational details, but they could choose to avoid surrounding Mosul completely — an option which Kurdish fighters have previously discussed.
“Senior peshmerga members believe it would be best to not fully encircle Islamic State fighters in Mosul and leave a narrow escape route,” added CTC Sentinel’s Flood, who spent time on the front lines with the peshmerga. “Then, as Iraqi Kurds and their allies inch toward the city’s limits on the village level, gradually tightening the noose, a de facto cordon for the Islamic State to retreat … could be created.”
Once the militants retreat, U.S. and allied warplanes could swoop down and strike them in the open.
It will take time. Freeing the city might take two months, Kurdish Brig. Gen. Sirwan Barzani told CNN. By that time, winter will begin setting in and the sky will become cloudier, complicating U.S. and allied air support.
In lieu of cloud cover right now, Islamic State has burned tires, sending up plumes of black smoke.
One lingering question is the role of the Popular Mobilization Forces, or Hashd, a coalition of Shiite paramilitaries backed by Iran. The Hashd stated on its website that it will aid Iraqi troops pushing toward Mosul and Tal Afar, nearly 40 miles to the west — but Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi said the militias won’t be allowed to enter Mosul.
The world will have to wait and see. A dreaded possibility is Mosul being recaptured with heavy loss of life, only for Iraq to unravel again months or years later — as it did when the Islamic State swept across the Syrian border in 2014.
Yet there are reasons be optimistic, if cautious. Again, there’s the large numerical advantage of the Iraqi and Kurdish armies — with the aid of an international coalition — that could make the fight for Mosul less terrible than widely believed, according to Michael Knights of the Washington Institute.
Second, the coalition supporting Iraq is far broader and more international in scope than the American-British alliance which occupied the country from 2003–2011, and which ultimately proved unsustainable.
To put the U.S.-led coalition in perspective, Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve (its official name), has more than 30 participating countries, including most of Europe and several Arab governments. These states can provide support — with more credibility — to an Iraqi government facing pressure from the Hashd.
“This diversity is genuinely useful,” Knights wrote. “It brings in capabilities the United States does not have, such as the Italian gendarmerie’s training mission with the [Iraqi] Federal Police, and gives greater diplomatic stability [our emphasis] to the Iraqi government’s relationship with the task force.”
To keep Mosul secure years after its liberation, Iraq will need it.