If he is to deliver on his promise to liberate Mosul by the end of this year, Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi has only a few weeks to meet the deadline. As things stand on the many different fronts of this strange war, however, signs are that Iraq’s third largest city may have to wait a bit longer to throw away the chains imposed on it by the Islamic Caliphate.
Only last week, Major Salam Al-Abeidi, the swashbuckling commander of the Iraqi Special Operations Force spearheading the fight for Mosul told reporters that the would-be liberators might need several more weeks before they reach the Tigris, the river that divides Mosul into Eastern and Western halves. To get to that point, the liberators would need to capture, cleanse and keep the whole of eastern Mosul which has been the principal focus of fighting since the battle started more than two months ago.
Though seizing and holding eastern Mosul would be a major feat in itself, the next phase of the fight is bound to be harder because ISIS has been digging its heels in West Mosul for more than two years in expectation of what its propaganda labels “the final battle” between the self-styled Caliph and his enemies. The battles in the Qadessiyah and Zahra districts of eastern Mosul provided a foretaste of the bigger battles to come.
The Iraqi authorities and their allies publish no casualty figures on their side. But anecdotal evidence and informal reports indicate that the liberators may have lost more men than they had expected in those battles. Judging by off-the-record comments by Iraqi officials and analyses made by Western researchers and observers, the battle for Mosul is poorly designed and sloppily implemented. According to military analysts, the Mosul plan suffers from at least five essential weaknesses.
The first weakness of the plan is that it is trying to use a combination of positional warfare and ultra-modern mobile operations. Anxious to limit casualties, the units involved are told to proceed at a deliberately slow pace against an enemy that is prepared to deploy suicide units in lighting hit-and-run operations. What this means in practice is that the liberators are pinned down clearing booby traps, dealing with vehicles loaded with explosives and the inevitable search for arms caches in “suspect locations.”
The second weakness of the plan is that ISIS is capable of attacking the pinned-down Iraqi forces with barrages of rockets or tele-commanded car bombs used as ground-based missiles. ISIS is able to employ such tactics because it has little or no regard for potential collateral damage and the number of civilians that could be killed. Iraqi forces, however, have to stick by a 17-page instructions guidance note designed to minimize collateral damage. In this dialogue of death the two adversaries speak total different languages.
The third weakness of the plan is the diversity of the forces involved in the liberation. The Iraqi Special Operations Force, called the Golden Division although it is only a brigade, is one of at least three active participants in a war-front that spans over 300 kilometers from southwest to north Mosul via the eastern neighborhoods of the sprawling urban area. The predominantly Shi’ite Popular Mobilization (Hashad Al-Shaabi) has been active in the southwest trying to seize the largely shattered airport thus facilitating air supplies and reinforcement from its allies in Iran.
However, Hashad has spent more energy on its ethnic-cleansing program in Tal-Afar than in engaging ISIS units. Although Hashad does have some Arab Sunni units, it is clear that it is not fighting in Mosul in the name of Iraq as a nation-state but in accordance with sectarian objectives spelled out by Tehran.
One task assigned to Hashad was to cut off ISIS’s links with its “capital” in Raqqa, Syria. This has not happened, fomenting speculation that Tehran and ISIS have a tacit understanding not to fight each other in any serious way. This is why General Pourdastan, Iran’s Army Commander until his recent reassignment, could boast that ISIS has agreed not to come closer than 40 kilometers from Iranian borders.
The third player in this war is represented by Kurdish Peshmerga (Death-Welcoming) units which operate in an a la carte fashion, cooperating with Iraqi army units on occasions but also going it alone whenever an opportunity arises. Not surprisingly, the Kurdish forces would not shun an opportunity to “correct” some of the mistakes made by the fallen despot Saddam Hussein who kicked Kurds out of their villages in the Nineveh province, of which Mosul is the center, and replaced them with Arab Sunnis and Shiites from other parts of Iraq. If Hashad fights primarily for Shiites, the Peshmerga fight primarily for Kurds.
The fourth weakness is the failure of Baghdad’s authorities to devise a post-liberation plan. Districts already wrested away from ISIS continue as a burden on the Iraqi fighting forces, themselves divided into several units of army, police and ad-hoc security units. Some fighting units are pinned down to clear the suspected booby-traps, debrief the coal population to weed out possible ISIS moles, and identify suspected ISIS commanders. In many cases, those units lack the training for what is, in fact, police-security work.
The fifth weakness is the absence of a hearts-and-minds policy to normalize life in liberated areas and build them up as an enticement to inhabitants of areas still under ISIS control. Most of the estimated 180 villages and some of the industrial suburbs of Mosul already liberated weeks ago still remain without water and electricity and other basic services such as clinics and de-briefing units.
However, the fifth and possibly most important weakness is the failure to create a centralized command-and-control authority capable of developing and supervising an overall plan for action. The result is lack of coordination and the inability of the coalition to use its immense firepower at the right time and in the right place.
Iraqis blame much of this on the Obama administration which, they claim, wants to control every detail from Washington. For example, if an Iraqi field commander sends an urgent demand for American helicopter-gunship support in a battle he would have to wait up to 10 hours before Washington, presumably Obama himself provides a yes or a no. By that time, however, the battle may well be over.
No city in the Middle East has ever been bombed more than Mosul. And, yet, the bombing, done by NATO air forces, seem to be designed to fill certain quotas and are seldom related to any clear plan for providing air cover for any ground operation. “For some reason, the French, for example, like to bomb on Wednesdays,” says an Iraqi official on condition of anonymity. “The Americans do so to massage NATO figures to reject the charge that Obama is a reluctant warrior. But this is what he is.”
Iraqis are sour about Obama for another reason. They claim that John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, had promised them that once the Mosul battle starts, Russia will also launch attacks on Raqqa, preventing ISIS from sending its best units to Iraq to fight. That hasn’t happened. Instead of attacking Raqqa, Russia has been focusing on the destruction of anti-Assad forces in Aleppo, allowing ISIS to pour in man and materiel to fight in Mosul.
Poor planning, internal divisions and contradictory ambitions of outside powers have made the liberation of Mosul a much longer and more tragic saga.