Last summer, ISIS shocked the world when it captured the Iraqi city of Mosul. Last week, the U.S. military made its own shocking move when, in a strategically bizarre decision, it announced a timetable for an upcoming offensive to retake Mosul from ISIS. By doing so, U.S. officials raised the expectations of the operation to the point that it will be judged as a test of the administration’s overall strategy to counter the group. Unfortunately, even if the city is eventually retaken, the circumstances under which that happens could set back the larger war effort.
U.S. commanders predict that 20,000 to 25,000 Iraqi and Kurdish troops will be needed to retake the city, which is disconcerting given that roughly 30,000 Iraqi troops turned and ran in the face of an assault from just a few hundred ISIS fighters last summer. Today there are believed to be between 1,000 and 2,000 ISIS fighters in the city, who, if they weren’t already preparing for a siege, certainly are now.
The U.S. has sent thousands of tons of weapons and military equipment to Iraq, and American advisers are working with Iraqi troops, but investment was never the issue. The U.S. spent about $20.2 billion during the reconstruction of Iraq to train and equip the Iraqi military that disintegrated at Mosul. Iraq’s military was hobbled by corruption and sectarian division and there’s good reason to think that former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, ever-paranoid about a military coup or the return of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party, wanted it that way. It would be pretty remarkable if a decade of mismanagement had been rectified in the last eight months.
Not only has the situation not been rectified, but Iraq’s official military is being largely eclipsed in the anti-ISIS fight by Shiite militias. The Washington Post reported in February that the militias’ ranks had swelled to between 100,000 and 120,000 fighters while the Iraqi army has dwindled to just 48,000, The plan that CENTCOM officers outlined last week involved five special Iraqi army brigades plus three brigades of Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, but many in the region, including the Kurds, are skeptical that the Iraqi army can mount such an attack without substantial help from the militias. And if that were to happen, it would mean that the U.S. would be providing air support to Iranian-backed paramilitaries. Not exactly what Obama wants to be doing.
Here’s another likely outcome: A “successful” U.S.-Iraqi operation in Mosul delivers a great propaganda victory to ISIS. Thus far, any wins by local forces against ISIS have all required substantial U.S. air support. Even the much-vaunted Kurdish Peshmerga needed an assist. They pushed ISIS out of the Syrian city of Kobani in January—the last battle viewed as a test case for Obama’s strategy—but not before four months of brutal urban warfare and a massive U.S. bombing campaign devastated the city. As an activist in the ISIS capital of Raqq wrote in the Guardian, “People don’t look at Kobani and see a defeat, because everyone had to leave and the Americans bombed it to rubble to win.” The judgment would be even harsher if the U.S. decides it has to destroy Iraq’s second-largest city in order to save it.
The administration and the public are understandably anxious for progress against ISIS. But rushing into a risky operation now could be a serious mistake. Given ISIS’ shocking brutality and alarmingly rapid spread over the last few months, it’s hard to be patient. But the group’s territorial gains have been largely halted in Iraq. While it continues to expand in Syria, both in terms of territory it controls and the number of fighters at its disposal, there are signs that it’s deteriorating from the inside. At this point it’s a forgone conclusion that this war is going to be a long one, for reasons that have as much to do with the difficulty of cobbling together an effective anti-ISIS coalition out of Iraqis, Syrian rebels and Kurds as with the tenacity of the enemy. Launching a major offensive too early could prove disastrous, which is why it makes no sense that the U.S. just gave itself such a rigid timeline.