By Patrick BAHZAD
Chatter is getting louder these days about the Mosul offensive against IS nearing its end. Considering the significant territorial gains achieved by Iraqi forces, this is obviously a positive development. The coming victory however will come at a cost, and in the long run, this cost may very well outweigh the short term benefits of this offensive. For now, it is too early to talk about victory. Actually, victory has not even been achieved yet, as the fighting is heading towards the six months mark. But a look into the rear view mirror might already give a few pointers as to where all this is heading…
Initially, when plans to retake Mosul were first drawn up, the city was supposed to fall into Iraqi hands by mid-2016 at the latest. Logistical issues, battefield shaping manoeuvers, as well as Iraqi and international politics however delayed the offensive, which finally got under way by mid-October of last year. By that time, a huge "Mexican army" – Iraqi style – lay siege to the big city in Northern Iraq. The mood among the troops (and the many embedded reporters) was positive, the outlook for quick victory was good. Five and a half months into the battle, and despite major gains against the Jihadis, there isn't much left of that optimism.
Mosul Battle nearing its end
Day after day, news are trickling in about further advances of the Iraqi forces, luring the US public into a false sense of "mission being accomplished". The countdown to full control over Mosul is on, there is no doubt about that, but what will be left of the city at that point is not yet clear. Eastern Mosul was freed by early January, and progression in the old city in central Western Mosul is ongoing. Various Iraqi forces are grinding their way through the last areas held by IS fighters and armoured units are edging closer to the Great Mosque of al-Nuri, from which Abubakr al-Baghdadi, then newly anointed "Caliph" of the so-called Islamic State, made his first and only public appearance, on July 4th 2014.
Contrary to what is stated in most media accounts, he never actually declared the establishment of a new Caliphate during his sermon. That was done a few days earlier via an audio message of his spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, who was killed by a US drone in August 2016. The symbolic value of the Nuri mosque however is huge and its recapture by Iraqi troops would be something like the Red Army raising its flag over the Reichstag of Berlin, in 1945. No wonder, Baghdadi's troops aren't keen on such a prospect and consider blowing up the old historic place of worship rather than relinquishing control over it. Again, the attitude seems like a distant echo of SS "die hards" fighting to the bitter end in the ruins of their "Reich" that was supposed to last a thousand years.
And just like in Berlin in 1945, the last line of defence is made up of foreign fighters, who know there is only one way out for them… The comparison with the assault on Berlin stops there however, because the war in Iraq will not end with IS losing its Iraqi capital. Instead, the Mosul battlefield is likely to turn into the birth place of the next insurgency. Too many mistakes have been made, are still being made, and too many factors are playing into the hands of those insurgents who prepare for the "day after".
Rising Civilian Casualties
In recent weeks, there has been alarming information about the increase in civilian casualties. Commentators who were lambasting the Russian approach to Aleppo will probably wish they had bitten their lip back then, for things look as though we have gone the Russian way... The truth of the matter is that combat in urban terrain – especially one such as Mosul, and Western Mosul in particular – is not possible without significant collateral damage, especially when you're fighting an opponent that is defending fortified positions, embedded within the civilian population and committed to fighting to the death rather than surrendering.
Therefore, the number of dead and wounded civilians will not come as a surprise to anyone who has seriously studied the local terrain and analysed IS' defensive tactics and strategies. In early December already, the Iraqi forces had an "operational break", which followed a period of very serious casualties they took during the operations in Eastern Mosul. Even though they managed to take back the neighbourhoods on the left shore of the Tigris, the Iraqis displayed serious operational shortcomings and very poor leadership at some points. These errors, as is usually the case in war, resulted in a substantial number of troops either wounded or killed.
Yesterday, CENTCOM Commander Joseph Votel testified as to the number of Iraqi casualties during the offensive. According to official Iraqi numbers, the forces involved in the assault sustained 5 400 casualties so far (800 KIA and 4 600 wounded). Whether these numbers are realistic is very much up for debate. But even if they are, they still represent a very high attrition rate, for the number of units actively involved in taking back the city is rather low. Efforts are currently under way to replenish and retrain the much famed "Golden Division" (ISOF1), which is being decimated by the vicious fighting taking place in Mosul.
This points to one of the major flaws in the Iraqi build-up to the battle. Despite the tens of thousands troops that have been "trained and equipped" by Western advisors since mid-2014, despite the massive amount of cash and the equipment that has gone Baghdad's (and Erbil's) way, the Iraqi armed forces still aren't proficient enough to take on a garrison of 5 000 to 7 000 dead-enders. And even with the help and supports of Kurdish militias, Shia PMUs, as well as local tribal fighters, totalling somewhere around 80 000 and 100 000 troops, they still haven't finished off the Mosul job. Five and a half months fighting, and going … One has to wonder where the offensive would be right now, without US and Western ISR, air strikes, artillery support and special forces !
Structural Issues with the Iraqi Forces
This is probably the 3rd Iraqi army that the US have rebuilt over the past 15 years. How many more will it have to sustain until the country is in a position to fight off the head-choppers from Anbar ? By contrast, Bashar al-Assad's often vilified SAA looks like a new model army that has managed to resist the Jihadi onslaught for years now. In Mosul however, the study of tactics and operational skills does not shed a very positive light on Iraqi security forces. A "bad plan, poorly executed" would be a fitting description for an effort that has highlighted the many shortcomings of the Iraqi forces as far as combined arms in urban combat is concerned. Examples of operations gone awfully wrong, from the Salam hospital to the narrow alleys of the old city are manifold. There is a lack of skill and leadership from top to bottom: combined arms at platoon or company level, meaning in this instance having infantry and tanks fight along each other, is almost non existent...
The same units rotate in and out, over and over, and the casualty rates are making sure that precious experience is being lost and not being replaced by anything equivalent. It is going to take years to rebuild the few decent units this army had to offer. The lack of expertise of the men on the ground is only matched by the leadership of the officer corps, which is probably more interested in pleasing the politicians in Baghdad (or D.C.) rather than coming up with a sound plan to take the city without actually destroying it. Much has been said about ROEs for US and Coalition air strikes being loosened ever since Donald Trump took over at the White House.
The truth is that this trend had already started in the dying days of the previous administration. During the operational break of December however, it was decided to delegate the green lighting of air strikes to field commanders. In plain English, it means that the Iraqis and the human intelligence they are providing are weighing in more heavily on the process. And the Iraqis are actually the side that is putting more pressure on Coalition air power to go and hit buildings they cannot get under control, regardless of collateral civilian damage. So far, 4 000 civilians are estimated to have died in the offensive on Western Mosul alone. These are staggering numbers that do not bode well for the future.
Refugees as a Ticking Time Bomb
The bad news does not stop there. Some 400 000 Muslawis have fled the city since October. Only 80 000 have returned so far. The rest are living in huge refugee camps, miles away from the city, in the East and South. Could IS' propagandists wish for a better breeding and recruitment ground than those camps ? In that regard, refugees from Mosul are just the tip of the iceberg. There are currently 3 million "internally displaced persons" in Iraq (half as many as in Syria), but their situation is much more worrying than in the neighbouring country, where people from all creeds have fled from the opposing side's forces.
In Iraq, the vast majority of refugees are Sunnis who have lost their homes as a result of government forces "liberating" cities from ISIS and turned them into a pile of rubble while doing so. The vast majority of those Sunnis come from the exact same provinces that have been ISIS strongholds for years. They may not be staunch supporters of Baghdadi, but they definitely won't hold him entirely responsible for the situation they are in now.
Think of where the PLO got its staunchest supporters from ! If these people aren't going home any time soon, don't be surprised if they turn into one of the main incubators for the next insurgency. Additionally, heavy handed policing in the Mosul neighbourhoods that have been retaken from IS only inflames things further. Masked gunmen parading as police take suspects into custody. There are rumours of arbitrary detentions and summary executions... Fact is, people are getting disappeared on a daily basis, just like in the old days of the Sunni-Shia civil war for control over Baghdad (2004-2007).
Clearing and Holding Mosul
Obviously, there is a need for clearing the area of IS sleeper cells, informants and sympathizers, but the tactics used by the various forces involved, some of them sectarian militias that aren't much better than IS itself, are going to be counter-productive in the long run. Resentment is slow in the making, but once installed, it is always difficult to eradicate.
Meanwhile, areas far away from Mosul might turn into IS sanctuaries, areas where fighters and leaders of the organisation could take shelter, hiding among friendly locals until an opportunity to resurface presents itself. Diyala for example comes to mind as a perfect hiding place, one that had been chosen already by notorious Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Ten years on and not that much has changed in Diyala… The border areas to Syria, along the Euphrates valley, also probably shelter a significant number of IS members gone into hiding.
The picture emerging from these trends will make the coming insurgency even more difficult to handle: IS will have been scattered all over the place, it will go into sleeping mode and gradually turn back into the insurgency it used to be in 2009, only this time, it will not just come out of the deserts of Anbar. It might morph into various shapes, with the refugee camps not exactly providing for the same kind of threat as the rural areas of Iraq or the disenfranchised neighbourhoods of Mosul, Ramadi or Fallujah.
More broadly still, the "Caliphate" has been preparing to go back underground in the Middle-East for a while now. Its leaders, assuming they are going to survive the current wave of fighting, realize they will emerge seriously weakened from the battle of Mosul (and soon Raqqa). But it is important not to forget that they have a global view of their so-called State. The Caliphate with its bureaucracy and (poor) infrastructure might be lost, but not the idea it is feeding on.
A "Deterritorialized" Global Caliphate ?
In Libya for example, despite major military operations in Sirte, IS is not willing to die. Through Libya goes the road into sub-saharan Africa, through Mali with its newly merged Jihadi scene, all the way to Nigerian Boko Haram. The "growth potential" for IS there is tremendous. In 2015 already, ISIS Central sent two dozen military trainers to Boko Haram, according to Western intelligence reports. It is quite likely they did not stop at that and will try and secure a broader operational base in the region.
South-East Asia too is an area of concern, especially countries that have not been confronted with major threats up until now. The number of Indonesians among IS fighters for example is significant and chances are, some of them at least will manage to return home once their "dream" of establishing an Islamic State in the Middle-East will have turned to dust. Who is to say what they will be up to once back home, in a country where reasons to be unhappy about the current state of affairs are plenty ?
The only upside from the current events is that next time around, there won't be a spill-over effect between Iraq and Syria, as there was between 2011 and 2014. Despite gloomy predictions about the future of neighbouring Syria, the truth is that IS is and always has been a Iraq centric organisation. Syria has been a safe haven, an area providing strategic depth to the organisation, but it has never been at the core of its political and sectarian utopia. Of course, if the Jihadis could have taken Damascus, they would have done so. But they did not and they settled for Raqqa and the Jazeera Desert instead. Most Syrians hate the organisation. They may support local Al Qaeda franchises, which adopted a wiser approach to getting embedded with the locals, but they do not want to live under the rule of Baghdadi or any other Caliph.
The Coming Insurgency
Soon, Raqqa too will be subjected to a siege. It remains to be seen which forces will gather at its gates. Chances are, contrary to popular belief, that a coordinated assault involving both US (Western) and Russian proxies will make sure the city is taken back. It is of course difficult to make any predictions, but it would not be surprising if things did go more smoothly in Raqqa than Mosul, unless of course a major disaster happens (like Thawra dam breaking down for example). Short of this however, the Islamic State in Syria will vanish into the deserts it came from, turning back to its historic birth place, in Iraq.
Iraq is where ISIS was almost broken some 8 years ago. It is also where the organisation has the best chance to survive, to regroup and ultimately to regain momentum. If we are serious about putting an end to it, we need to pay better attention and avoid mistakes that were made in the past. Considering that past however, as well as our present inability to apply our "lessons learnt", there is no reason to be overly optimistic about our chances to prevail. The next insurgency might already be upon us, or rather upon unlucky Iraq.