By Patrick BAHZAD
We are now over two months into the battle for Mosul, and the initial optimism has definitely faded away. The palpable sense of doggedness about the urban combat taking place in the Eastern parts of the city, reflecting an atmosphere of almost trench-like warfare, contrasts sharply with the easy territorial gains achieved by Iraqi security forces in the first days of the offensive. Early announcements about the imminent liberation of the city and the final fall of the "Islamic State" now sound hollow and premature. The truth about Mosul – that much should have been clear from the outset – is that this will be a costly battle. Costly in time, costly in energy, equipment and planning, and most of all, costly in lives. Overall, a rather sobering and grim outlook. Happy new year…
It is winter in Northern Iraq: the weather is bad, the terrain is muddy, and around Mosul, the morale of the Iraqi forces is low. Weeks of house-to-house fighting have taken their toll, not just in terms of casualties. There had not been any doubts in the initial phase of the offensive, but uncertainties gradually crept into the Iraqi battle plan, so much so that a complete overhaul of the tactical and operational approach to taking back the city was recently announced.
Loopholes in the operational planning
The basic issue is that the Iraqis went in with one plan in mind, and no backup solution in case things did not go as expected. To be fair, looking at it from the safe distance of a D.C. based think tank, this was a "slam dunk" situation. The numerical advantage of the Iraqi "armada" assembled at the gates of Mosul was quite overwhelming and the first days and weeks, although bloodier than many observers imagine, looked encouraging.
In short, the idea was to isolate Mosul from the main LOCs to and from the city, cut of the centre from its immediate hinterland, disrupt IS' territorial continuity along the Tigris valley and thereby shape a battlefield that would be conducive to offensive operations towards the city, while at the same time containing IS attempts at disrupting the logistical trail up to Nineveh plains. The "shaping" phase, although first delayed and then extended a number times, worked reasonably well. Taking back Qayyarah airbase, with its nearby bridge over the Tigris, dealt a severe blow to the Jihadis and laid the groundwork for planning an assault onto the city.
In the media, this plan was discussed and praised at length in the weeks prior to the offensive, but a few critical points were dismissed all too quickly. Of course, one may already consider it an achievement to have regular Iraqi army units fight side by side with Kurdish Peshmergas, PMU militias (mostly Shia), Sunni tribes or Turkish proxies, but having such a large array of widely differing troops does not address the question of who is going into Mosul.
The ICTS as the Spearhead of the offensive
Both the US-led Coalition and the Iraqi government had made it clear, for a number of reasons, that the only force to enter Mosul and physically confront IS fighters in a maze of small back streets of alleys would be the ICTS, the Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service. That decision was very much in line with operational decisions taken in Ramadi and Fallujah, which were both retaken in 2015, mainly through the ICTS. The fact that Ramadi is still mostly a pile of rubble and that IS retreated from Fallujah without putting up much of a fight does not seem to have been considered as relevant at the time of the planning for Mosul.
What has happened on the ground is that the ICTS has been confronted with a much tougher defence than expected. The Iraqis didn't make large inroads into the centre of the city, as they had probably planned, and Coalition restrictions on CAS and artillery did not help. The "Islamic State" had had two years to prepare for the battle and they surely were busy getting on with it.
Two months into the fight and the ICTS now looks like a spent force already. The casualty rates are abysmal and the loss of skilled personnel (with their years of experience) already is irreplaceable. There has been a fallacy at work here and that bluff has now been called. True, there were around 80 000 men laying siege to Mosul, against a "garrison" of 5 000 to 8 000 IS fighters. But that advantage looks more and more like a deceitful appearance, as not all of those 80 000 are actually fighting the enemy.
The front-lines of the battle are almost exclusively ICTS territory, and for good reason. The occasional engagement of regular army units (like the 9th division for example) proved a devastating experience, not to be repeated unless absolutely necessary. What we are witnessing is actually known as the "Cannae syndrome": a huge fighting force on paper, significantly outnumbering its enemy, but only a small part of it doing the heavy lifting and paying the price in the friction area of Mosul's Eastern neighbourhoods.
The new plan
Numbers and statistics about the Iraqi casualties were published by the UN, but heavily criticized by Iraqi government officials for their lack of accuracy. Be that as it may, the same methodology is being applied in other places, and has never been called into question. Anyway, when you have got 30% of your fighting men either KIA or wounded, you know something is going seriously wrong. The problem for the Iraqis is that rotating other units into the battle involves huge risks. Involving Shia PMUs would definitely be the nightmare scenario everybody wants to avoid.
We are now being told a new battle is going to be implemented in order to achieve the expected outcome. This plan means sending in more Western SOF into the city (an option initially considered "out of the question"), moving US and French artillery closer to Mosul (to achieve better accuracy) and increasing the number of precise airstrikes on specific targets. It will also involve rotating Iraqi units and improving coordination between them.
For now, it seems the "Rapid Response Division" is the first large unit being thrown into the battle inside Mosul, in addition to ICTS. The idea will be to identify and destroy IS key defensive positions inside the city, as well as their command centres, and quickly move into those areas, before the enemy can reorganise. Will those measures be enough tough to gain momentum and get the job done ?
Looking at Aleppo as the only point of possible comparison, it is doubtful that Mosul will be taken in the next couple of months. True, the city is surrounded and IS will not be able to move in reinforcements. But they probably did not count on that either. By now, they will have made preparations to sustain a long siege. Mosul has likely been turned into a "tunnel city" and it will be a tough challenge clearing that giant Swiss cheese …
Undoubtedly, IS' positions and command centres will have been buried deep underground, in the immediate vicinity of hospitals, schools and bakeries. Complex defensive systems (complex not meaning high tech in this instance) will also have been put into place, including the obvious SVBIEDs, but also various booby traps, IEDs and mines, as well as concealed firing positions (also for mortars and other artillery), manmade obstacles and ambush areas. Tunnel networks will allow IS to move fighters and equipment without being spotted, or stage small attacks in the rear if the attacking force. They are a crafty bunch, that much should be known.
How that kind of defences are going to be overcome, with hundreds of thousands of civilians present, that is where our commitment to avoiding the Russian style approach to Aleppo will truly be tested. Getting key targets out of the way, without resorting to similar tactics, will definitely be a daunting task. Adn there aren't that many options at hand to solve this problem. The humanitarian dimension in particular will prove to be a crucial one.
The Civilian Conundrum
Unlike Eastern Aleppo, parts of which were basically an empty shell, Mosul has a large civilian population. How we are going to avoid significant casualties among these people, when IS is literally embedded in their midst, is a mystery to me. The weeks to come should be telling in that regard. Being overly optimistic again would probably be a mistake.
It was the Iraqi government's decision not to prepare for the evacuation of Mosul's population, counting on quick advances into the city to avoid a large exodus. The Iraqis are now stuck with a situation where up to 1.2 million people are still holed up in their houses and basements and are being used as human shields by IS. Mind you, it could be worse. NGOs and the UN have made preparations to shelter some 120 000 people, if need be. So far, only 50 000 civilians have been taken charge of. But imagine the "Islamic State" herding some of the minority groups out of the city, and you got a humanitarian disaster on your hands.
Lots has been said about "resistance" groups inside Mosul. There are obviously individuals and even small groups, possibly coached by Iraqi Intel inside Mosul, but any idea of a popular uprising against IS should be dismissed. It will not happen. First of all, let us remember that there was almost no attempt at resisting IS' push into Mosul in 2014. The "Islamic State" has enemies inside Mosul, that much is clear, but it also has a reasonably large base of local supporters and fighters. The IS garrison of Mosul is not made up entirely of foreigners, far from it. This is not Fallujah 2004 …
Historically, ever since the insurgency of 1959, which ended in a bloodbath, the Maslawis have developed a sense of "laisser faire", avoiding to get involved in government matters, and to the winner the spoils. Expecting them to rise up against IS is basically a pipedream, especially with Shia PMUs at the gates. It will be hard enough building the city again, let alone expecting its divided population to take part in the fight.
The way ahead
In August 2016, CENTCOM Commander, Gen. Votel, ventured so far as announcing the liberation of Mosul "by the end of the year ". He probably had his reasons, but in hindsight, it doesn't take a military genius to figure out, this was a bit of an over-optimistic statement. Was is undeniable is that IS has a limited numbers of fighters inside Mosul and that once they are gone, one way or the other, the battle will basically be over. Other than that, there is little reason to be confident about the weeks and months to come. Most likely, things will get worse before they get any better …
One should also be aware that the battle of Mosul is fought "behind enemy lines" by IS too, not just by the Coalition. Conventional operations on the periphery of territory currently held by IS are as much a possibility as raids against Iraqi government LOCs. And of course, the tempo of suicide operations against Baghdad, and possibly areas in the Shia heartland, might increase in order to force the Coalition to spread resources and manpower across Iraq, thereby weakening the Mosul front.
The way the battle is going to shape up will finally depend to a significant degree on our approach to CAS, airstrikes and artillery use. If the situation looks more and more deadlocked, chances are, we might ease up on the strict ROEs we decided to stick to up until now. In any case, the only thing that seems certain is that a lot more blood will be spilt before this battle is over.