The Battle for Mosul: IS’ swansong or yet another shapeshifting ? (part 3)

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.

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46 Responses to The Battle for Mosul: IS’ swansong or yet another shapeshifting ? (part 3)

  1. Serge says:

    Votel also parroted the Iraqi government claim that 284 soldiers have been killed in w.mosul operations. Anyone remember Iraqi government outrage in dec over the UN claiming 2000 Iraqi troops dead in November alone? Iraqis have long track record of pulling this tactic of obfuscating and lying about casualties,for propaganda. One of the biggest reasons IMO that Al Jazeera was kicked out last year was that they were virtually the only news organization to report on Iraqi armed forces casualties in fight against IS

  2. Willybilly says:

    Al-Jazeera IS to be considered as part and parcel of IS thugs and liver eaters from inception until today…

  3. The Beaver says:

    What happened in South Baghdad ( what is known as triangle of death) last night is a good example of how ISIL can be revived!

  4. turcopolier says:

    Excellent, excellent work. I think you as well for notifying me of the death of my old French Army friend BG (ret.) Jacques Kolly. pl

  5. Babak Makkinejad says:

    Patrick Bahzad:
    If one has a garden and a sitting area, one is often bothered by mosquitoes.
    There are various concoctions that one can use to get rid of them.
    These remedies do not kill those mosquitoes; rather, would be causing them to move to the neighbors’ gardens and yards.
    Which is an acceptable solution for most people.
    Perhaps analogous such remedies might be adopted by SAR and the Iraqi governments.
    The mosquitoes would

  6. r whitman says:

    Who do you think will “own” the cities of Mosul and Raqqa after the conquest?

  7. Pat,
    You’re welcome, altough I’m very sorry about the sad news.

  8. Serge,
    Indeed. NGO reports related to the whole of Iraq though, it has to be said. But it’s true that the Iraqi government asked for those figures not to be published after that.
    Same goes for civilian casualties, since about a week ago.

  9. Babak Makkinejad says:

    be some one else’s problem; hopefully the Gulfies.

  10. TB,
    Yes, Baghdad is definitely within reach of IS terror acts, but not as an area where they could regroup.

  11. RW,
    I’m not sure about whether there will be anything resembling unified control over Mosul anytime soon. Security forces may be in control of a vast wasteland, void of most of its inhabitants. But in this kind of war, its control over the population that matters. So the question is, who will be in control of the refugee camps, the areas where IDPs live, the rural places along the Iranian border, etc.
    Ramadi and Fallujah are small in comparison to Mosul and they still haven’t recovered from their “liberation”.
    As far as Raqqa is concerned, I’m less pessimistic, first of all because the locals don’t feel any sense of allegiance to IS and then because there are still tribal structures in place in the area that could take over some form of local control over the city once the fighting is done. Short term, it doesn’t look as bad as Mosul. Long term depends of course on the settlement reached for the whole of Syria.

  12. Fred says:

    “The Caliphate with its bureaucracy and (poor) infrastructure might be lost, but not the idea it is feeding on.”
    Every time the jihadis are successful in striking abroad – Nice, Paris, London; the West lights up the night time sky. Special lights on Big Ben, Tour Eiffel. It’s like a giant victory celebration. When was the last time France lit up the Eiffel Tower when her police were successful in stopping a terrorist attack? I sure don’t remember one. Let’s not forget Mr. Zuckerberg, he lights up the entire internet with special motifs on Facebook. This only reinforces the idea of victory amongst the potential martyrs. The West is, inadvertently or not, providing a powerful worldwide symbol of the terrorst’s victory in battle over the West which in the long term will become a part of their collective memory and be one more item in the recruitment toolshed of their ideology.

  13. Farmer Don says:

    This may be old news.
    But I think it’s good news.
    Haley: U.S. no longer focused on removing Assad from power
    By AIDAN QUIGLEY 03/30/17 02:43 PM EDT

  14. So much to think about after reading the post and the comments. Thanks for taking the time to write the report and answer the questions.
    Now I will go to give my thanks for my blessings. I will ad one: I was blessed not to be born in Iraq.

  15. 1. From above article, showing ineffectual policing of captured areas in Mosul leading to further tension:-
    “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..”
    2. From Lavrov interview, published 29th March 2017, on post-relief policing of East Aleppo:-
    ” … some ground special military police helping keep law and order in the Sunni quarters of Aleppo and Damascus, the military police from Russia is largely composed of Russian Sunnis from the northern Caucasus—Chechens, Ingush and others.”
    One of the many contrasts between the re-taking of the two cities therefore lies in the policing of the re-taken areas. It was reported that after the relief of East Aleppo Russian military police restrained SAA units or local militias when those units were mistreating the local population. According to the above quotation from Lavrov, the Russians ensured that those military police units were from suitable groups. There’s no one, it seems, to exercise a similar function in Mosul.
    (Lavrov quotation taken from an interview mentioned in the Saker and printed here:-
    Thank you for the article.

  16. Peter AU says:

    “This is probably the 3rd Iraqi army that the US have rebuilt over the past 15 years.”
    This is something I have looked at for some time. Non US trained PMU’s seem to perform ok in Iraq, also Kurds.
    When you look at both Syria and Iraq, it is only the US trained Iraq Military that do not perform well against ISIS.
    I may not be right here, but looking at Syria, the Russians seem to be able to understand and then enhance what is already there rather than trying to completely rebuild in their own image.

  17. b says:

    I am less pessimistic on Mosul and the Iraqi army seems to go out of its way to avoid civilian casualties. They risk their own lives instead of just bombing the old city of Mosul to smithereens. Just compare the operation to when the U.S. destroyed Fallujah in a way more brutal operation.
    The Saudiss shave already started to finance a new “Sunni movement”. The think tanks are all out demanding that the U.S. uses some imaginary “Bedouin tribes” to steal parts of south east Syria and Anbar. Guess who pays them.
    Fact is – Sunni Arabs are some 22% of Iraq. The have had, under Maliki(!), a higher percentage than that in budget and political positions. That continues to be the case. They have killed -under the ISIS label- thousands of their neighbors. I would understand very well if the Baghdad government would finally say “enough” and really crack down on the. Alas – it doesn’t.
    Fighting in a city is impossible without massive destruction. What are the Iraqis to do? Leave Mosul under ISIS? With a million people suppressed by it? Or rather clean it up as good as possible?
    The security services are rounding up Sunni men leaving Mosul? Well – how else are going to stop ISIS fighters from leaving in disguise? They will sort them out. Surely, mistakes will be made in this. But is there any idea of how to prevent that?

  18. VietnamVet says:

    Excellent. Hard to argue the facts.
    The War on Terror is a quagmire of the West’s own making. In the past, wars ended; except for the Holy Wars. Proxy forces and military contractors hide the war until they don’t anymore. NATO cannot occupy Afghanistan, Ukraine, Iraq and Syria indefinitely with a volunteer army. The USA has been at war with the Sunni Arabs for a quarter century with no end is in sight.
    Destroying governments willy-nilly and forcing millions to flee has already destabilized the West as shown by Donald Trump’s election and Brexit. To continue the wars and the looting an ancient evil scapegoat is required. That is Russia. If any nation survives into the 22nd century, it will need to have the high ground, fresh water, free education, healthcare, arable land, nuclear weapons, and a trained militia of able bodied citizens.

  19. Jim MacMillan says:

    Thanks for a first-rate analysis.
    What is your opinion on hints that Iraqis will leave the old Mosul neighborhood until last because of its narrow streets and alleys? And also because some of that neighborhood is home turf to many of the Daeshis.
    PS: do you still post on twitter?

  20. ISL says:

    Very nice analysis.
    It seems to me that if you are rebuilding an army again and again and again, then, as for a broken bone, it gets weaker each time its rebuilt. How does one recruit? Come join the new new new Iraqi army to experience decimation and be part of (if you are not a casualty) its next glorious rebirth? Seems a lousy slogan.
    Seriously, it seems a recipe for qualified recruits to go into a militia, and a further centrifugal force on the center.

  21. Jim MacMillan says:

    Or perhaps a more direct role in sending those mosquitoes to the Gulfies – such as the help that Lenin and 31 other Russian dissidents got in returning to Petrograd?

  22. charly says:

    If it is liberated by the Kurds it has the advantage of being liberated by “foreigners” that leave as i assume the Kurds will leave while the Iraqi state will stay

  23. charly says:

    I think you have it wrong. The US (and the West) didn’t ally with there enemies but was their main enemy.

  24. BM,
    Maybe these mosquitoes are a new mutant/hybrid species that needs a specific ecological system to thrive on ? Would the Gulf States or KSA provide them with what they need to live and prosper ? Probably not.

  25. I doubt the Kurds will be involved in the actual assault on Raqqa. More likely the will be in charge of controlling access to it from North and East, partly from West, but they will not be part of the main assault force. Arab units among the SDF may be though.
    Also, keep in mind, Raqqa is much smaller than Mosul and doesn’t have the same urban fabric as Mosul. One thing that can’t be discounted is the the locals might be willing to provide much more assistance than in Mosul.

  26. There is a point there as so far as a Sunni auxilary police force that is not seen as a sectarian group by locals does indeed help defuse potentially dangerous situations. The role of Russian military police in Aleppo is probably much underrated.

  27. The main difference between both countries is that in Iraq, the US (through Viceroy Paul Bremer) destroyed the old Iraqi army and made sure many of its former COs and NCOs joined the insurgency.
    Building an army from scratch is never easy and even less so, when it gets soundly beaten time and again.
    That did not happen in Syria, the SAA has undergone major changes throughout the war, some of it not very positive in terms of organisation, but it is still manning the barricades.
    The other thing is that the SAA has been fighting a much different war, some of it conventional in open terrain, than the iraqi forces, whose know how consists mainly in encircling cities, pounding them with artillery and airstrikes, than moving in along major roads for a series of shootouts like at the OK Corral. The fighting stops when there’s nobody left to shoot at.

  28. It took the US roughly 10 000 troops to be done with Fallujah in about a month. Civilians casualties were nowhere near as bad as in Mosul.
    As for representation of the Sunnis in Iraqi politics, if they are so well represented, why would they have turned to insurgency groups such as ISIS ? your argument is nonsensical. The issue is that Sunnis had been in charge of Iraq ever since the country was created and the Baathist elites, even those that could have been part of the reconstruction of the country, were ostracized right from the beginning. Not even in Germany, did the US act so harshly with former members of the Nazi bureaucracy.
    As for the battle of Mosul, I think it’s being handled very unprofessionally, but the real issue is not just Mosul itself, it’s how it’s going to affect the future of the whole country. you may be optimistic about the battle itself, but it would be foolish to think there is light at the end of this tunnel. There isn’t.

  29. Chris Chuba says:

    I saw this video on Southfront, it shows an Iraqi soldier putting his Humvee into reverse to block a car bomber (the white car racing from top to bottom of screen).
    The Humvee looks like it has a small gun in front, I could mistake it for a tank but in any case whoever did this was not only brave but also had the presence of mind to pull his vehicle next to another parked truck so that the SVBIED could not maneuver around it. This was a real hero.

  30. Pundita says:

    “Iraqi government forces have changed their tactics and Isis is now being attacked by the so-called Golden Division, a specially trained 10,000-strong elite unit attacking the Old City from the west. The plan is evidently to make multiple attacks on Isis, which has an estimated total of between 3,000 and 4,000 fighters in Mosul, to spread them out and make it easier for assault teams to penetrate into the Old City.”
    — From Cockburn’s latest dispatch from Mosul, filed about 12 hrs ago:
    “People in besieged Mosul Old City ‘dying of starvation’ as Isis shoots anyone who tries to flee”
    Again Cockburn mentions the ‘walking through walls’ tactic in use by IS in Mosul.

  31. ex-PFC Chuck says:

    Patrick Cockburn suggests that the final push in Mosul should not have been undertaken until the accessible safe havens for ISIS had been eliminated.

  32. Babak Makkinejad says:

    I think we are witnessing the actualization of latent potentialities already inherent in them.

  33. b says:

    Under Saddam Sunni’s, 22% of the Arab Iraqis, had 60-70% of the upper government positions. In the current Iraqi government they have about 30-35%
    Quite a loss but not a bad position.
    That the insurgency came up again is to a large part the effect of Saudi Wahhabi money that wants to fight Iran (all Shia) down to the last Iraqi, Syrian and Yemeni men.
    These wars will continue until someone separates the Wahhabi from way to much oil revenues.

  34. Serge says:

    This is Iraqi propaganda that SF unfortunately fell for and retransmitted. It is a truncated segment from an ISIS propaganda video. In the full version it is very clear that he was not intending to back up in the path of the VBIED to block it,just an unfortunate panic reaction. The appearance of the VBIED was prefaced by a drone attack by the same drone filming,used to distract the vehicles in question. And it is also very clear that there was nothing to protect from the VBIED,the vehicles were the target.

  35. I don’t believe that our Western professional armed forces can be effective in the ME. This is true both of the initial combat and of the subsequent policing operation – though the two phases are so often intermixed that that distinction may not always be useful.
    To the civilian observer the most dramatic contrast between the Western and the local forces is the visual. At one extreme one sees highly trained and disciplined Western professionals in specially designed and forbidding looking kit. At the other are, say, Houthis pottering about in sandals but remarkably effective at what they set themselves to, or Kurds, the ones in Syria who couldn’t get hold of military assistance for a long time, cheerfully holding back the Jihadis with any old rifle that came to hand and making a thoroughly good job of it. Those are the extremes but there’s also a marked difference when you get towards the middle. In set piece combat it would presumably be no contest between the Western professionals and the locals. In either a tribal or an urban area, where civilians are mixed up in it all and the Western professionals are working to ROE that don’t allow them to simply flatten whatever’s in front of them, it’s very different. Unless you’re prepared to end up with a Grozny or a Fallujah, and sometimes even when you are, the advantage is to the locals, particularly in the long term.
    One expedient is to train local forces to do the work. Casualties are then not such a consideration for the Western press and populations and ROE breaches are more easily overlooked. But it seems to be difficult to train local forces in any quantity to fight in the Western military style. Can one talk of a disconnect between two cultures that inhibits ready transmission of our way of preparing and organising fighting units?
    In the Georgian war it was said that the units who gave the Russians the most trouble were the units that had not been Western trained. The Western trained units couldn’t cope. In the Donbas the Right Sector or Neo-Nazi units, as well equipped as the opposition and with plenty of fighting spirit, didn’t seem to be able to hold their own against local units whose only military experience was from long ago in Afghanistan. Not a fair comparison, perhaps, because the comparison is between street fighters and those with at least some experience, and one suspects the Russian advisers were better than the “colour revolution” types who, at least initially, seem to have been advising the Ukrainians; but nevertheless in such cases one gains the impression that trainers from outside a culture have a harder time producing effective forces than those from inside.
    So in the ME unless it’s set piece high tech warfare we can’t do the fighting ourselves, or not without heavy civilian casualties and with results that are inconclusive in the long term; and when it comes to co-opting or working with the local population we do not do that well either. Here’s a video of a high quality Western unit working against the grain in Afghanistan when training local units to take over after an expected Western disengagement. The relevant part starts from 1hr 17 mins.
    It’s clear that the two styles of organising fighting units are so very different that expecting local forces to suddenly transform themselves into effective Western style forces is unrealistic.
    Using Western troops themselves to do the post (?) conflict policing is also difficult. In Basra Western forces tried colonial style policing rather than combat style policing. Light vehicles were used that could negotiate the narrow streets and were not too intimidating to the local population. The emphasis was on co-operating with the locals rather than subduing them. The results, both from the point of view of effective policing and as regards the morale of the troops concerned. were not good. There was considerable criticism of the equipment thought appropriate, as the entries in the link given show –
    but the key objection was to the assumption that we would teach the world how light touch policing was done. I recollect that that was a theme among defence experts at the time. Instead the world, at least in that corner of Iraq, taught us and it taught us different. ” Hearts and minds” policing of that type doesn’t work in such circumstances. But policing using heavier equipment, and regarding the area to be policed first and foremost as a combat zone, doesn’t work either. It results in the opposite of winning hearts and minds.
    That is a puzzle that as far as I know no Western forces in the ME have solved. The increased antagonism towards or suspicion of Westerners that is now seen in the ME doesn’t make it any more likely that we will solve it in the future. We can without question win when it comes to conventional warfare. We can arm and set in motion fanatics, or assist or acquiesce in that process. What we can’t do is set the place to rights afterwards.
    Can the Russians? You confirm (above) that they might be doing a better job of the policing. Little reported are the efforts of the more than 400 Russian negotiating teams who, throughout Syria, are resolving conflict on the local level and somehow separating out those who are fighting merely because they found themselves caught up in the fighting from those who are fighting from conviction. It’s too early to say whether those efforts will be successful long term, but at the very least persuading Jihadis to get on a bus and the rest of them to stop fighting is a step further than we’ve managed.
    Here on the Colonel’s site discussion is to some extent centred on whether we ought to be fighting in the ME. Many, including me, have strong opinions on that but perhaps the question is also whether we can be – whether it’s possible at all for us to be doing anything useful there. If our aim now is indeed to stabilise the region then we ought I think to recognise that in these circumstances Western troops, however professional and experienced, are not necessarily best suited for the task and nor are the locals they train.

  36. turcopolier says:

    What is needed is a small auxiliary army of people like Peake, Glubb, Jim Gant and a few more who will devote themselves to working for life with “the natives.” Unfortunately such people are condemned to the mistrust of their own countrymen. pl

  37. Babak Makkinejad says:

    Any contemporary would-be Gordon or Glubb would lack legitimacy.

  38. Babak Makkinejad says:

    In fact, Western troops cannot win in conventional warfare either; they can win battles and not wars; i.e. destroying the enemies’ will to resist.
    Seventy years of war and Israelis have not won the War for Palestine; although they have won major battles.
    In my opinion, the key mistake of the Western Fortress has been a consistent belief that they can be great military powers, great economic powers, and at the same time to protect their citizen against the vagaries of global competition.
    Why does England have CHAVES and why does the United States have the so-called Disability Belt?
    And yet US, UK navies – among other navies from the Western Fortress – are going up and down the Persian Gulf protecting the Gulfies.
    Are they rented navies?

  39. Babak Makkinejad says:

    It is Holy War on all sides.

  40. Babak Makkinejad says:

    In Iraq, you said “Ya Hussein” in the wrong place and you would be dead.

  41. Babak Makkinejad says:

    US needed the NAZI bureaucracy as the struggle for European dominance had commenced. White House perceived no such need and disbanded the Baathist.
    I go by analogy with the Spanish Civil War; the Nationalists crushed the Republicans and that was the end of story; I find no reason to expect any other outcome in Iraq or in Syria.

  42. Babak Makkinejad says:

    You might be interested in this prayer in Judaism:
    Barukh ata adonai alooheynoo malakh, ha olam shalo asa neysha.
    Blessed be the Lord that I was not born a woman.

  43. Jim MacMillan says:

    al-Mayadeen is reporting hundreds of foreign Daeshis are gathering in the Nuri Mosque where the caliphate was announced.
    So it looks like the die-hard Gotterdamerung forecast by PB may come to be.

  44. Colonel – I was unable to find the link comparing the performance of Western trained and non-Western trained Georgian forces because it was some time ago that I read about it. I have, however, just seen a link to the same events –
    though the facts given in the link aren’t quite as I remember the facts as they were stated at the time. Here is the relevant section –
    “According to Vladimir Karyakin, a professor at the Military University of Russia’s Ministry of Defense and a retired air force colonel, the case of Georgia is worth recalling here: “The US has already tried to bring Georgia’s army up to NATO standards. Under the provisions of the agreement on cooperation in the military sphere between Washington and Tbilisi, a large-scale, complex program was launched to provide the Georgian army with comprehensive training. The Pentagon took upon itself not only supplying various weapons and military equipment, but also training the personnel and units of all forms and types making up the republic’s armed forces. The first phases of the plan covering the period of 2002-2004 envisioned basic training for Georgian soldiers, non-commissioned officers, and officers.”
    Karyakin described the operation in more detail: “In regards to purely military supplies, Washington immediately gave Tbilisi 10 Iroquois helicopters and 1000 sets of military uniforms in addition to a batch of mine detectors worth $1.6 million. Among American supplies were also two Point patrol boats from a US Coast Guard base manufactured in the 1960’s, M4 automatic rifles (adopted by the Georgian armed forces as the main individual firearms for soldiers in January 2008), and M40 machine guns.
    “The training of the Georgian army, let us note, cost no small amount of money. In 2002-2004, as part of the Georgia Train and Equip Program, the Pentagon spent $64 million on training the personnel of the 1st infantry brigade numbering around 2,5000 men. In 2005-2006, it spent another $100 million on the Georgia Sustainment and Stability Operations Program for training, equipping, and upgrading the 2nd and 3rd infantry brigades. Georgian instructors highly trained by American specialists meanwhile handled the personnel of the 4th and 5th infantry brigades as well as Georgian reservists.
    “In addition, starting in 2002, 60 American instructors from the Army Special Forces and Marines trained the fighters of four battalions and one separate reconnaissance company of Georgie’s armed forces. As was stated, this was a program on fighting terrorism. In the framework of two other programs, Foreign Military Financing (FMA) and International Military Education & Training (IMET), Washington has since 2005 annually allocated Georgia $11.9 million and $1.4 million respectively.
    “And what was the result? When in August 2008 Georgian troops attempted to take control of South Ossetia, it turned out that all that American money was wasted. Georgia’s armed forces failed to complete a single combat task. And this happened because of one elementary reason. You can arm an army with different weapons and dress it up in a new uniform, but this army will pull no weight if its soldiers do not clearly understand what they are fighting for and what they should, if necessary, die for. In my opinion, a similar situation is unfolding with the training of the Ukrainian army.”
    As I remember, however, there were some Georgian units that performed better than stated above and these were Georgian units that had not been retrained.
    Fort Russ is not, I believe, a flawless source of information so you may not wish it to be linked to on your site. But if so, perhaps one of your contributors may have kept the original relevant link.
    On past colonial administrators in the mould of Glubb Pasha perhaps John Lawrence might be added to the list –
    I’m not sure the encomium linked to would be fully endorsed today, but he was a great man and protecting the locals from the depredations of the local landowners or moneylenders was one reason for the acceptance of colonial rule for so long. A while ago I used to know administrators from the Mandate period who had in the same way seen protection of the Palestinians as their function. The reasons why I am now sceptical of such work in the various colonial regions are (1) on many occasions we ourselves were the looters, (2) the colonial administrators did not receive such acceptance in the more modernised urban areas and were slow to respond to the demand for self-determination that came largely from those urban areas and (3) when we pulled out – usually in a disgracefully cavalier manner – the indigenous political structures hadn’t evolved to take the strain and the result was usually disaster.
    As for Palestine, we also sent out Wingate, a dynamic leader who had a great time training and organising the Jewish settlers and was therefore in effect working directly against the aims of the “Arabists” in the administration. I do wonder if this serious division among the colonialists themselves at that time isn’t mirrored in the often contradictory seeming policy in the ME that was so often seen in the Obama administration. If the administration back home is subject to divided counsels then the chances for a concerted and effective policy on the ground are further reduced.

  45. LeaNder says:

    Thanks, Patrick. Yes referring constantly to 1938 while ignoring 1945–from a no doubt German perspective–was meant to fail. If the would have been really interested apart from special dates, they would have known.
    You cannot sent a huge percentage of a population into the wilderness. Let’s see how the new US admin handles matters.

  46. DH says:

    “But have you wine and music still,
    And statues and a bright-eyed love,
    And foolish thoughts of good and ill,
    And prayers to them who sit above?”

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