Last week, the press panned Mr. Obama’s anodyne remarks about “violent extremism.” The next day, the Central Command briefed the press on plans to seize the city of Mosul in northern Iraq, which is currently held by ISIS. For a White House fixated upon imagery, news of an impending offensive projected a resolute commander-in-chief.
The briefing elided its subliminal message: Americans in ground combat. General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, had previously said, “We may need to ask to have our advisers accompany the troops that are moving on Mosul.” However, there is no “may” about it. While the offensive will mainly be launched by the Iraqi Army, it cannot succeed without American forward air controllers and advisers, plus thousands of backup U.S. troops. CentCom did not give its briefing without knowing whether the plan included advisers. In that sense, the briefing was a trial balloon to prepare the public for a change of mind by the president.
The two battles for Fallujah show what would be likely to happen in Mosul. In April of 2004, President George W. Bush ordered the Marines, against their advice, to seize Fallujah. Within days, the ferocity of the battle sparked a public outcry. Mr. Bush lost his nerve and ordered the Marines to pull out. Similarly, if Mosul is attacked, Mr. Obama will be pressured by a dozen nations with competing interests. Given the present circumstances, he must, unlike in past crises, be fully resolved to stay the course.
In the Fallujah case, the Islamists took control after the Marines pulled out, forcing a second assault in November. Some 18,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed by 540 air strikes and 16,000 artillery and tank shells. Knee-deep water flooded the shattered city. Seventy Americans were killed and 600 wounded.
The coming offensive will be war on a scale without precedent in the past decade. To get to Mosul, 200 miles north of Baghdad, the Iraqi Army has to fight its way through five cities. Once that is done, logistics supply requires holding open a single highway that will be subject to repeated IED explosions and suicide-bomber attacks. Between 30,000 and 50,000 tons of munitions, water, fuel, and equipment must be delivered to the frontlines. Delays and shortages are inevitable.
This fight will not be swift. ISIS knows it will crumble if it cannot hold onto territory. If ISIS were to retreat, what happened in Anbar Province in late 2006 would be repeated: namely, the local populace would point out every jihadist and every hiding place. A despised army is most vulnerable as it tries to retreat. Every identifiable enemy vehicle would be a target for air strikes by our forces.
When ISIS first attacked Mosul, the Iraqi Army ran away. So ISIS will fight with confidence when the Iraqi Army comes back. The jihadists will hold tens of thousands of civilians as human shields, while hundreds of thousands will flee, guaranteeing confusion. Thousands of fanatical Islamists will be hiding among 150,000 buildings, determined to fight to the death.
The part of Mosul on the east side of the Tigris is Kurdish. That likely can be seized. On the west bank of the Tigris, the city is primarily Sunni, and the fighting will be tough. In Fallujah, about 150 squads searched 18,000 buildings, engaging in more close-in shootouts than all the police SWAT teams in history. Iraqi soldiers, lacking the determination of United States Marines, will not battle house to house. Instead, they will stand off and smash the city with artillery and American air power. Mosul is five times larger than Fallujah. More than 2,000 air strikes and 100,000 artillery shells are likely to be delivered, with 50,000 buildings wrecked. The press will show pictures of rubble and misery day after day, week after week.
There will be nothing surgical about this offensive. A State Department spokesperson recently repeated a mindless trope: “We cannot win this war by killing them. We cannot kill our way out of this war.” Well, get ready for a lot of killing. President Obama must prepare the public for an operation that will be fierce, long, and messy.
Given the enormous costs, the White House must not commit to this operation unless it is convinced that taking Mosul would significantly advance American interests. Now comes the strategic kicker: Who is the winner if Mosul is seized? Iran.
Currently, Iran has 7,000 troops and advisers working with the Shiite militias fighting alongside the Iraqi Army. Our bombing and our advisers would be supporting Iranian soldiers and Shiite militias advancing amidst Iraqi Army units. This operation would make America the de facto wartime partner of Iran. If the Shiite Iraqi Army did capture the destroyed Sunni city, Iran would stand out as a winner, having extended its regional power into a Sunni heartland. How would the White House explain that outcome to Sunni states like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt — already estranged by the administration’s actions over the past six years?
By briefing about a military offensive for public-relations effect, the White House and CentCom have posed strategic questions without providing the answers. The war would not stop with Mosul. Seizing that city would still leave ISIS in control of northwestern Iraq, half of Syria, and large swaths of North Africa. Before we again enter this war on the ground, we need to clearly define the final objectives in Syria, Iraq, and across the Maghreb.
A coalition of Sunni leaders, mullahs, and warriors must emerge, putting forward a progressive Sunni religious doctrine backed by a terrible swift sword. The U.S. should support that movement with funding, moral approval, arms, airlifts, intelligence, air strikes, and adviser/air-control teams. On occasion, U.S. raids and expeditionary assaults on a battalion or larger scale would be appropriate. A key element is to foster the emergence of charismatic Sunni Arab warrior leaders. The war against Sunni jihadists must be defined, primarily fought, and won by Sunni Muslims.