Every day the coalition conducts air strikes in Mosul. Those strikes support Iraqi and embedded U.S. coalition ground forces by destroying Daesh (ISIS) personnel in their redoubts. Nearly all the bombs hit their targets without any civilian loss.
But on March 17, a coalition air strike may have killed more than 100 civilians. An investigation is under way, but the specific cause of the civilian deaths is not yet known. One Iraqi commander has claimed that secondary explosions from an air strike on a Daesh bomb truck might be responsible. Regardless, Iraqi and international outcry is growing. The U.N. has implied that the U.S. is bombing indiscriminately. Human-rights groups are questioning the coalition’s commitment to protecting civilians. And in Iraq, Sunni leaders, including the parliament speaker and the head of a major political bloc, have expressed great concern.
Momentum is building toward a pause or restriction on operations in Mosul. That must not happen. We’ve witnessed a tragedy that demands investigation. But we must not risk victory.
After all, although it’s tragic, this incident isn’t surprising. As I explained at NRO last October, Mosul was always going to be a challenging locale for air strikes. The city is densely populated, and Daesh forces embrace ambush-maneuver tactics alongside human shields. Cumulatively, those factors make efficient targeting an extreme challenge for air controllers.
Another problem is Daesh’s perception of civilian casualties as a strategic weapon. When Sunni civilians are killed by coalition or Iraqi forces, Daesh presents their deaths as evidence of America’s desire to maim Iraq. According to Daesh, the deaths prove the Baghdad government’s disdain for its Sunni citizenry. Mosul is key to Iraq’s future. If the city becomes a symbol of Sunni oppression, Prime Minister Abadi’s reconciliation campaign could implode. Daesh and Iran are united in their desire to see such an implosion.
Yet pausing or restricting American operations in Mosul would be the wrong move today. Only Mosul’s northwestern sector now remains in Daesh’s hands. Their forces are surrounded and under extraordinary pressure. To hesitate now would give Daesh an opportunity to resupply and regroup, thus prolonging the battle for Iraqi civilians and soldiers, and increasing the political risks to Abadi. At the same time, with Daesh nearly encircled in Raqqah, we have an opportunity to show the group for what it is: an army of losers destined for annihilation rather than divinely ordained victory. Remember, Daesh recruitment in the U.S. and abroad rests on the group’s ability to show credible and growing power. In Mosul and Raqqah that credibility is dying.
To hesitate now would give Daesh an opportunity to resupply and regroup, thus prolonging the battle for Iraqi civilians and soldiers.
Iraq’s recent history offers a critical lesson here. Fallujah, April 2004: After the killing of four U.S. contractors there, the U.S. Marines were ordered to seize the city from insurgent forces dominated by al-Qaeda in Iraq (Daesh’s precursor). Marine commanders (including one James Mattis) believed that the operation was a mistake, but they followed orders. Three weeks later, having taken casualties, the Marines were near victory. But just short of victory, sensitive to international complaints that the Marines were too aggressive, the Bush administration ordered a withdrawal. The Marines were replaced by a poorly led Iraqi replacement force that quickly surrendered to the insurgents. In the ensuing months, the al-Qaeda threat from Fallujah only grew. And in November 2004, the Marines had to return to finish the fight. More blood was lost as our troops retook ground that has been taken and then given up.
Fallujah should have taught us a lesson about urban operations in Iraq. Once committed, the pursuit of victory must not be diverted by civilian casualties, which are sometimes unavoidable. When America, the coalition, and our Iraqi allies entered Mosul, our objective was Daesh’s defeat and the city’s liberation. That objective remains. We must see it done.