This year Iraq’s politicians are hoping for a major turn around in the security situation in the country. A big focus is upon retaking Mosul the nation’s second largest city and the center of the Islamic State’s (IS) caliphate in Iraq. Premier Haider Abadi recently said that the city would be freed soon. Given this pressure the United States decided to announce a plan to attack Mosul this spring. This garnered a huge amount of press coverage, but largely missed the fact that the Iraq Security Forces (ISF) would not be ready for such a large undertaking in just a few months. Rather than revealing the timetable for pushing IS out of Mosul the United States’ real target was the Iraqi political class, which has been deeply critical of America’s effort and to show them that Washington has a plan to defeat the insurgency.
On February 19, the first day of a conference on countering terrorism held by the White House a member of the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) briefed reporters on an impending Mosul campaign. The official said that a force of 20,000-25,000 soldiers and peshmerga would retake the city in April or May. This would involve five army brigades, three peshmerga brigades, three reserve army brigades, a counterterrorism brigade, and a unit made up of Mosul locals who would hold the city after it was cleared of insurgents. The eight ISF brigades would all undergo training by the United States. They would face a force of 1,000-2,000 Islamic State fighters in the city. The American announcement came just three days after Prime Minister Haider Abadi gave an interview with the BBC in which he said Mosul would be freed in just a few months with minimal casualties. He went on to criticize the U.S. led coalition for taking so long to get involved in the fight against IS. Other Iraqi leaders have made similar negative comments about the Americans. When the insurgents launched their summer offensive in June the White House made it clear that it would only intervene after Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was removed from office. That took several weeks, which proved to be the most critical period during the militant surge, as many believed that Baghdad would be besieged after Mosul and Tikrit fell. That delay made many Iraqis question how much Washington was committed to Iraq. Some even believe that the U.S. backs IS. Those types of comments were the main motivation for going public with the Mosul plan. The White House wanted to let Baghdad know that it was concerned about reversing the insurgency, and had a strategy in place to do it.
The fact that this was a political move and not a real timetable was made apparent quickly after the CENTCOM briefing. First the official said that if the Iraqis needed more time to prepare for the offensive it could be delayed. That was an out because the ISF will not be ready in two to three months. The U.S. is supposed to train roughly 16,000 Iraqi soldiers by April. As of February it had only put 3,400 soldiers through a basic 6-8 week course. Some of this training has been without weapons because Iraq’s notorious red tape has delayed their delivery. An officer in the Iraqi Defense Ministry told Bloomberg that the 8 brigades would not be ready until August. Second, this process will take even longer as 20,000-25,000 soldiers and peshmerga are not enough to assault a city the size of Mosul that has roughly 1-2 million people. In 2004 the U.S. used 10,500 troops to take Fallujah that had a population of approximately 350,000. Some 3,000-4,000 insurgents opposed them. Rather than the 1,000-2,000 IS fighters the CENTCOM briefer claimed are in Mosul Iraqi and Kurdish officials put the figure at more like 10,000. Given the size of the city and the number of insurgents the Americans will need to train roughly 40,000 Iraqis or more to have a credible chance at success. Third, Mosul is supposed to be held by former soldiers and police from the city along with local tribes. In December 2014 members of the Ninewa council said Premier Abadi had given permission to set up three camps to train this Mosul Brigade, which was supposed to reach 8,000 volunteers. In early January it was claimed that 4,000 men had shown up at two camps, but then in February a peshmerga commander was quoted in the Daily Beast saying that there were only 800 Sunnis undergoing training to hold Mosul. That is obviously nowhere near the number necessary for the job ahead. Finally, at a minimum Salahaddin province would have to be cleared before the assault on Mosul to secure supply lines and communication for the ISF that would be coming up from the south. Currently the ISF and militias in the province are stretched and have not been able to hold some of their recent victories. Securing that governorate will take a long time putting another hold on Mosul. American officials have previously noted many of these issues so they are aware of the challenges ahead. That was even more evidence that an imminent offensive against the city was more talk than anything else, and was motivated by other issues like politics other than the military situation on the ground.
The U.S. is a big player in Iraq, but does not have the same position it once held. Coming late to the fight against the Islamic State has led to deep questioning of the Baghdad-Washington relationship by Iraqi elites. Feeling this heat the Americans made a public relations move by announcing a plan for Mosul in response to increasing statements by Premier Abadi and others that the city should be taken sooner rather than later. This is meant to buy time, as the real attack upon the city is a long ways away. The Iraqi army needs to be rebuilt, crucial territory needs to be cleared to even reach Mosul, and a real force has to be recruited to hold the area. That all points to the winter of 2015 being a more realistic date for this operation than the spring. That has to be sold to the political leadership by not only the Americans but the Iraqi Defense Ministry as well, because Baghdad doesn’t seem to be taking into account the current situation as it talks more and more about expelling the insurgency from major urban areas.
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