Approaching from the east and south, Iraqi forces have begun operations to retake Mosul. Their fight will not be easy. While ISIS, or Daesh, knows it will lose the city, it hopes to make the Battle of Mosul as militarily and politically bloody for Iraq as possible. In that scenario, Daesh believes a tactical defeat will serve broader strategic interests. If Iraq is to prevent Daesh from carrying through its ambitions, the U.S. contribution will be crucial.
Securing Mosul and deconstructing its Daesh garrison will not be easy. For a start, consider the scale involved here: Mosul has around 1 million residents spread across both banks of the Tigris, which intersects the city. It is much larger, for example, than Fallujah — where the U.S. Marines lost nearly 100 men in November 2004. Moreover, Daesh is well prepared for the attack. Estimates suggest it has three to five thousand fighters in place. They have lined houses and streets with explosives, have constructed tunnels, arms depots, and fortified positions, and will use civilians as human shields. The reliable MosulEye Twitter feed claims Daesh holds thousands of prisoners inside the city. Still, the current battle map hints at the basic Iraqi-Coalition strategy. Kurdish militias and coalition Special Operations forces are advancing on Mosul along a wide eastern front. From the south, the Iraqi army is pushing up Highway 1. In concert, these offensives appear designed to clear Daesh skirmishing forces from Mosul’s satellite villages before compressing the city’s southern and eastern approaches. Then, it seems, the final attack will begin.
In the final assault on Mosul, U.S. participation will be most instrumental. The last few weeks prove why. As researcher Kyle Orton points out, the U.S. has recently prioritized the targeting of Daesh officers who have specific operational relevance to Mosul. That’s no surprise. It shows the capability of U.S. and allied intelligence services in pummeling Daesh’s resistance networks. Yet these shaping operations cannot do everything. And as Iraqi forces enter Mosul, they will face a concerted barrage of suicide bombers, ambushes, and snipers. As the operation unfolds, Iraqi forces will rely on U.S. tools including video footage from drones and cellphone intercepts to help them navigate a city full of threats.
Of course, the major U.S. complement to Mosul’s liberation will be air strikes. As a September 2004 paper explained with regard to urban air support, “structural density restricts maneuver and makes direct-fire engagements during ground combat occur at very close ranges (25–100 meters), in contrast to similar engagements in open terrain, which occur at much greater distances (300–800 meters). Consequently, the majority of urban CAS missions will fall into the category of troops in contact or danger close.’” In essence, because Iraqi forces will be operating in close proximity to Daesh forces, the need for effective air support will be instrumental. And that means U.S. (and perhaps British and French) Special Operations forces will have to deploy within Iraqi frontline units. They must do so, because with multiple aircraft from many different nations flying overhead (perhaps including troublemaking Russians), and with Daesh moving rapidly and using civilians for cover, air strikes must be quick and accurate. Delivering those strikes requires great skill. U.S military air controllers are best able to provide it.
U.S. assistance in Mosul is equally important in its political dimensions. After all, Daesh aside, the Iraqi state remains deeply fragile. And if problems arise in retaking Mosul, Iraq’s various adversaries will seek advantage. For one, there are the Iranian-supported (and often -directed) Shiite militias opposing Iraq’s multi-sectarian democracy. Having abused Sunni civilians during other operations, the Shia militias have been banned from Mosul. But if just one of the militia leaders senses opportunity to please Iran by undercutting Iraq’s moderate prime minister, Haider al-Abadi — perhaps by killing Sunni civilians — he might do so. Another complication is the militia infiltration of certain Iraqi police units. Prime Minister Abadi hopes to mitigate that risk by assigning Iraq’s professional counterterrorism service to lead the ground incursion. At the same time, for all their courage and sacrifice, the Kurdish militias involved in the Mosul operation also have their own territorial ambitions. The U.S. must ensure that these militias respect property rights in Mosul.
These broader political dimensions cannot be understated. As I noted in March, Daesh wants to turn Mosul into a political bloodbath for the Iraqi government. They want Iraqi frontline units and Shiite militias to slaughter Mosul’s Sunni civilians under a narrative of Shiite domination. They want the Kurds to rob Mosul’s Sunni civilians. They want the Turks to continue agitating against Baghdad. Such developments, Daesh hopes, would force Sunnis to continue supporting them for reasons of self-defense. Remember, Daesh’s power resides both in weaponizing delusional theocracy and in manipulating human desperation. Thus, to counter Daesh, Iraq’s government must earn popular credibility by liberating Mosul in good order. As former Delta Force commander Jim Reese put it to me, “victory requires unity of effort and unity of command with our Iraqi partners.” If the multi-sectarian city is secured and its people protected, Iraq will have won a great victory for its future.
Regardless, the coming days will be hard. Daesh fighters in Mosul know they are going to die and will wreak havoc on their way to hell. And even if Daesh is quickly pushed into the western desert and annihilated, their organization will remain a very serious threat.