Monday, January 16, 2017

Interview With Journalist Florian Neuhof On The Mosul Campaign

Florian Neuhof is a freelance journalist who has written for The National, The Daily Beast, Middle East Eye, and other publications. He has covered the Mosul campaign since it started in October, and embedded with the Peshmerga and Golden Division. Here are some of his observations about the fight. He can followed on Twitter @FlorianNeuhof

1. The original Mosul plan was for the Iraqi army, police and Golden Division to all converge on the city at the same time. The northern and southern fronts stalled however, and the Golden Division got to the city first and was told to push on ahead. Do you have any thoughts on why the campaign fell apart?

It is a bit of a mystery to me why the campaign was so disjointed for so long. I'm not privy to the political and military decision making on the Mosul operation, but it seems to me that Abadi was under pressure to show results, and so decided to send in the Golden Division (GD) before the other forces were ready. I think an underestimation of the defenses also played a part, certainly right at the top, which would explain why the GD charged headlong into Mosul before checking their pace and advancing more methodically.

The poor performance of the army and police may also be down to a lack of time to properly prepare and train these units. In addition, some of the top commander chosen to lead these men seem pretty inept.

2. In just a few days the battle for Mosul has been transformed from a slow slog to a quick advance across most of the eastern section of the city. Why do you think the fight changed so dramatically?

Apart from the reasons given by the coalition - better coordination, more US SF assistance and better tactics - you now have considerably more capable forces in eastern Mosul after the arrival of the Rapid Response Forces and some able police units. And while sending in the GD ahead of everyone else was strategic nonsense, it did soften up ISIS defenses prior to the renewed push early in the new year. The Iraqis where able to replace their destroyed material and beef up their forces. ISIS on the other hand cannot resupply the east bank from the west any more, and has limited manpower in Mosul anyway.

I saw a lot more air support the last couple of times I went into Mosul, which might be a consequence of US special forces getting closer to the action. At the same time, the Iraqi forces are coming up with better ways to deal with suicide car bombers, which have been a real hazard during the past three months. The Rapid Response Forces for instance tell the inhabitants to park their cars across the road as soon as they enter an area, so blocking off avenues of attack. Those two things combined shifts the advantage back to the military in terms of guided ordinance.

3. After east Mosul is freed the next big move will be crossing the Tigris River and taking on the western half of the city. There doesn’t seem to be any consensus on what that will be like, the same, harder, or easier than the east. Any predictions for the coming fight?

I fear it will be tougher still. The roads in the old parts of West Mosul are narrow and windy, the neighborhoods more densely packed. Moslawis have told me that support for ISIS is higher in the west. Civilians and soldiers have told me that a lot of the foreign fighters have retreated to the west bank. These fighters have a reputation of being better than local ISIS combatants. The terror group may still have half of its fighters left to defend the west bank.

That said, I think the tactical advantage has shifted to the Iraqi military. ISIS has sprung its surprise by throwing waves of suicide bombers at the attackers, but the military has been able to devise ways of better dealing with these. The ISF should also be able to learn from its mistakes in the past, while the US has realized that it needed to up its support. ISIS on the other hand may well have run out of ideas, recent innovations like dropping grenades from drones have proven pretty ineffective. So hopefully my fears will prove unfounded.

4. You recently wrote about Gogjali, which is just outside east Mosul and is being used as a hub for people going in and out of Mosul as well as supplies, and Sumer that is a neighborhood in the southeast. What is life like for the civilian population in different parts of the city and suburbs?

I visited the areas close to the university yesterday, and I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly some semblance of normality has been restored. Food and fuel seems to be reaching these parts in sufficient quantities, and people are out on the streets and in their cars. That said, I don't think the electricity and water supply has been restored in those areas either. The damage to the infrastructure is significant, not just due to the fighting but also because of the neglect during the ISIS occupation. But only days after the liberation, you can already see work to repair damaged roads underway, and electricity cables being hung.

Mortars are flying in from the other side of the river, and this is likely to remain a problem for a while, while I think there will be terror attacks on civilians by sleeper cells. But these might be less frequent than anticipated, as many ISIS sympathizers followed the retreating jihadists, and the security forces will be able to root out others with the help of the local population.

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