OUTSIDE MOSUL, Iraq — On a trip to northern Iraq toward the end of August, I interviewed the Kurdish commander of the Peshmerga 7th Brigade, General Bahram Yassin, about the looming battle for Mosul. Speaking at his forward command post overlooking the leading ISIS defensive lines outside of Mosul, Yassin went into some detail about what he expects to happen when hostilities over this key city commence: hand-to-hand combat, human shields, entrenched ISIS fighters immune to airstrikes and all too happy to experience martyrdom.
ISIS has rigged buildings, roads, and other items to explode and planted IEDs in “virtually every road and every alley,” Yassin told me. “I expect that we’ll have to fight them, taking neighborhood by neighborhood, alley by alley, and sometimes house by house.” Since U.S. troops, artillery and air support will be involved, there could be American casualties.
Despite that fearful prospect, what concerned me most was is what Yassin said about what could happen after the liberation of Mosul. This is going to be a “coalition” offensive—but the coalition isn’t one of different countries. Everyone involved is Iraqi, but they consist of the fractious, mutually mistrustful constituents—Kurdish Peshmerga, Shia militias, the mixed-sectarian bag that is the Iraqi army—of a country that could still easily fall into civil war again after ISIS is defeated. Yassin said one of his major concerns is that binding political agreements won’t be in place prior to the fighting, and if there aren’t clearly articulated limits and responsibilities for each of the attacking forces, it’s not hard to imagine Sunni militias butting heads with Shia militias during the fighting, potentially coming to blows with each other.
The result could be an Aleppo-style quagmire.
And there is little in place right now to prevent that. Thanks to the continuing weakness and corruption of the Iraqi government, there is presently no central command authority for the operation to recapture Mosul. Thus, while optimistic press releases coming from U.S. military and government sources give the impression that the looming battle of Mosul “is the end game in Iraq,” the truth is far different. Rather than marking the end of the war in Iraq, the fall of Mosul—if it even happens—is likely to mark the beginning of the next nasty conflict.
From my interviews with senior government officials, military generals, regional experts, displaced persons from increasingly crowded refugee camps, it became clear to me that winning the fight for Mosul for the anti-ISIS side is hardly assured, and even if ISIS is eventually eradicated, the absence of a unifying enemy might release pent up animosities and hatreds among current allies. This could potentially unleash an even greater bloodbath in Iraq than that wrought by ISIS.
Based on everything I’ve heard, Washington is not ready for this. And what that means is that unless the U.S. government conducts a sober reassessment of its objectives and strategies. the U.S. will continue to expend large amounts of taxpayer dollars and some blood while unwittingly contributing to the further degradation of the Iraqi social fabric, worsening—not ending—the war. Without a better understanding of the military aspects of this complex offensive; without mobilizing a significant and immediate global humanitarian effort; and without a substantial diplomatic effort on America’s part, we may see a larger civil war igniting throughout Iraq than we’ve already seen.
General Yassin said he has several sources living among the ISIS troops giving him updated intelligence on enemy movements and dispositions. He estimated that there are upwards of 20,000 ISIS fighters defending the city. “They have moved out of all the easily identifiable buildings that could be hit with airstrikes,” the general explained, “And they have moved into the residential areas, specifically embedding themselves in the civil population.” Their intention is to limit coalition bombing by touting killed civilians from U.S. and coalition strikes.
Think of the difficult, dangerous campaign to liberate Fallujah under the George W. Bush administration—the challenges in Mosul, which is much larger, are an orders of magnitude greater.
Ali Javanmardi, a veteran field reporter for Voice of America News (VOA) who accompanied me on this assignment, told me, “I have seen with my own eyes that these people [ISIS fighters] do not care about anything, they do not fear death.” Yassin added that sometimes ISIS attacks had no apparent tactical purpose or value. “Sometimes they don’t need a reason or purpose, they will just attack.” I asked the obvious question: “Why would they sacrifice their life in a fight that can’t succeed or doesn’t even help them tactically?”
He looked at me and chuckled. “They apparently don’t need a reason.” He and Javanmardi both speculated that many of their fighters have been brainwashed and actually believe that if they are killed fighting the enemy, they’ll go to heaven and get everything they ever wanted. Whatever the reason, traditional calculations of cost-benefit ratios have little value to ISIS leaders.
The official Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) of Baghdad is more capable today than they were two years ago, but they are not strong enough to retake Mosul on their own. Baghdad is aware of this deficiency and is trying to negotiate with several force providers to fill the gap.
Currently being considered for participation in the operation to retake Mosul are the federal ISF troops, the Kurdish Peshmerga, Shia militia (known as Popular Mobilization Forces), Sunni tribal militias (known as National Mobilization Forces), Christian militias, and then the Western military powers of the U.S., Great Britain, Germany, among others, which will provide support. Managing that many different military entities is challenging enough, but the historical and cultural baggage each brings to the fight makes it nearly impossible.
Yassin emphasized that before the opening blitz to retake the city begins, all the coordination has to be completed and agreed upon by all participants. For example, of the several Shia militias, where will they enter Mosul, which parts of the city will they be responsible for taking, what are their left and right boundaries, and what will be their responsibilities for providing security in their zone after the fighting is complete?
These same questions will have to be posed to each and every group participating. But the difficulty of this task is compounded by history, religion, and ethnic grievances.
As reports continue to emerge from the liberation (once again) of Fallujah earlier this summer, yet again Shia militia are being investigated for large scale executions of Sunni civilians in the aftermath of the “liberation” of the city, as happened in Tikrit before.
The Sunni tribal militias and civil population in Mosul are aware of these reports and have no intention of allowing any Shia groups into their zone. If they do, I have been told, the Sunnis will fight the Shia militias as much as they would fight ISIS.
So it’s not just defeating ISIS — it’s how the campaign is waged to defeat ISIS. These concerns add to the already complicated mixture of potent regional rivals teaming up for short-term gain.
“Before any fighting can begin, all the political factors must also be decided upon,” a senior minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), Falah Mustafa Bakir, told me. For example, he said, “Who will be responsible for providing security in the city, who will provide critical services, who will be in charge of each area? Everything has to be agreed to politically before the campaign can begin.”
The Peshmerga have made it clear, he said, “We will not go into any part of the city where we are not wanted. We will fight to retake Kurdish and Christian zones only. If we are required to clear other areas,” he continued, “we will withdraw immediately afterwards so the appropriate groups can provide security.” Those questions cannot be answered on the fly during the fighting or the attacking forces might end up fighting each other. That is no small concern.
Yassin said one of his major concerns is that binding political agreements won’t be in place prior to the fighting.
I’ve seen how this can happen personally. In 1991, as a brand new second lieutenant, I was assigned to the U.S. 2nd Cavalry as part of VII Corp’s drive into the Republican Guard during Desert Storm. At various times during the offensive, our unit had to coordinate with two different U.S. armored divisions, British forces, as well as Special Forces and Air Force representatives.
De-conflicting boundaries, assigning tactical responsibilities, coordinating forward passage of lines, and other maneuvers were critical to mission success – and to avoid fratricide. The only way such intensive, complex operations were possible is because there was one single commander who gave orders that all coalition members were bound to obey and execute. Whether it was the Egyptians, the Brits, the U.S. Marines, the 1st Infantry Division, or Saudi mechanized forces, all were under the authority of General Norman Schwartzkopf, Commander-in-Chief of all coalition forces.
To reiterate the single biggest vulnerability of the Mosul operation: There is presently no central command authority for it. It would seem Baghdad might be the natural candidate to designate such an official, but the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) are not strong enough to capture the city on their own and are dependent on other armed formations. Moreover, they do not have command authority over even the forces operating within their borders.
As Minister Mustafa and General Yassin both emphatically told me, the Peshmerga military forces answer exclusively to KRG President Masood Barzani and no one else. Members of the several Shia Popular Mobilization Forces answer to their individual militia commanders – or directly to Teheran. The Sunni National Mobilization Forces likewise owe their allegiance to each militia commander. Then there are the international forces led by the U.S. Each has significant contributions to make, yet not even the U.S. Central Command has authority over any of the Iraqi elements, and Baghdad itself is not obliged to do anything the U.S. suggests.
As a result, there are a number of councils and committees that have been formed for the purpose of trying to come to an agreement with each entity on the military and political dimensions of the battle, but each delegation head is a free agent. Each has their own set of demands and requirements and each is free to accept or reject the demands of another.
Thus far—quite predictably—no consensus has been reached and no date for the beginning of operations has been set. If Baghdad gets impatient and orders an attack in the coming weeks or months in the absence of a firm agreement from each party, the consequences could be dire.
ISIS is a single entity obeying a single commander, and as General Yassin pointed out, they are fanatical fighters, showing they are willing to sacrifice their lives in support of their cause. They will likely execute a coordinated, unified battle plan, yet each of the coalition and militia members have their own agendas, their own motivations, and their own command structures. Even if all the factions eventually reach agreement on political and military objectives, there is nothing obliging any to follow through once the fighting begins.
This is a crucial weakness.
Given the significant animosity between the Shia and Sunni Muslims, and even the discord between the Kurds and Arabs, it is possible that two of these forces may come to such disagreements on the battlefield, which could lead to turning their guns on each other instead of the common enemy of ISIS.
The bottom line: without a single military or political leader over the battle, the chances of discord or fratricide are substantial. The chances that this hodge-podge of attacking forces willingly cooperates towards military effectiveness are remote. If a solution is not found prior to the beginning of the fight, it is possible that like the city of Aleppo—where a number of competing militias, rebel groups, and government forces own various quarters – the fight could bog down into a years-long slog where no side is strong enough to defeat all of the others.
Separately, without more help than we’re giving now, the headlines that are now dwelling on the humanitarian disaster in Syria, especially Aleppo, could easily shift to Mosul. Europe could suffer a whole new refugee crisis. That was another issue stressed by both Minister Mustafa and General Yassin. “If significant changes are not made before the battle begins, we will have a humanitarian catastrophe,” Mustafa said.
In the refugee camps I have visited—four in March of this year, and two more at the end of August—I I observed horrible conditions and desperation. The newest camp in Debega, outside Mosul, was intended to house the thousands who are beginning to slip through the ISIS lines to freedom. , But as one of the aid workers lamented, there simply is not enough food to properly take care of 30,000 men, women, and children living there. I myself observed a series of three delivery trucks that rolled into camp and were quickly swamped by throngs of people desperate for food and water.
Tempers flared among the workers and frustrations built among the refugees. In the end the trucks were stripped clean and rolled quickly out of the camp gates. There were still many scores of people who walked away empty-handed.
And this is just with 30,000 refugees. Mustafa told me the KRG was already home to over 1.8 million refugees and upwards of another 1.2 million were expected to flee from Mosul and surrounding areas once the fighting begins. UN officials, he explained, said that their analysis indicated “they would need about $284 million to adequately house and feed that many more people.” The UN itself thinks it will need more, saying the expected Mosul operation is expected to be the largest creator of displaced persons in the world in 2016. “In a worst case,” the UN’s appeal in July noted, “nearly $1.8 billion may be required.”
Many members of the international coalition spend billions of dollars on the preparation for combat. If they fail to allocate funds and deliver the resources to Iraq prior to the initiation of the battle, the human cost will be severe. No matter what, the people driven from their homes are going to suffer, but if they escape the fighting only to find no shelter or food available, Mustafa is right: a crisis could transform into a catastrophe.
Stability in Iraq, therefore, is contingent on progress among the political and ethnic entities within its borders that we haven’t seen yet’. This is not good news for U.S. interests.
The Kurds, America’s most stable ally in the country, will only help so much. Both General Yassim and Minister Mustafa were unequivocal during the interviews that they expect Kurdish independence. “It is the dream of every Kurds,” the general told me, “to have a country of our own.” Mustafa said that the Kurds do not desire a military solution to gain their freedom, but he indicated they would push hard politically. .” If we cannot live together as part of the same country, then let’s agree on independence so that we can live in peace and prosperity as two good neighbors,” because he later said, Erbil and Baghdad both need each other and benefit from mutual cooperation. Two days after our interview, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi seemed to be moved by the argument.
On August 28th, Kurdish news agency Rudaw reported on the results of a high-level meeting between senior Kurdish political leaders and Iraqi PM Abadi. According to one of the Kurdish delegation, Saadi Ahmed Pira, Abadi was surprisingly open to the idea of more self-determination for the Kurds.
Currently the U.S. is brokering political negotiations with many stakeholders in the fight for Mosul to determine which groups or entities are assigned which missions, where each group can go, and where it can’t.
The problem is, many of these groups presently unified in their desire to destroy ISIS, have nearly as strong antipathy for each other. Once there is no more unifying focus on destroying ISIS, there is the real chance that these groups will then turn their weapons on each other. The continued rift between Iraq’s majority Shite Muslims and the minority Sunni provides the greatest concern.
The schism between the two branches of Islam dates back to the year 632 AD when the Prophet Muhammed died and there was a disagreement over who should succeed him. The Sunnis were those who followed Abu Bakr and the Shia supported the former leader’s son-in-law, Ali. They have been in often violent disagreement ever since. The hostility between the two was artificially suppressed during the dictatorial regime of Sunni Saddam Hussein, but once he was deposed, the majority Shia population of Iraq took the opportunity to exact revenge against the minority Sunnis. The hatred between the two continues today and has ominous implications for a post-ISIS Iraq.
This has significant ramifications for U.S. security. If Washington continues to predicate strategic success based on the necessity of several groups of historic enemies coming to terms with each other all at once, they are almost certain to fail. The Obama Administration is coasting to the exit and is highly unlikely to make any broad policy changes prior to changeover next January.
The next administration, whether a Clinton or Trump, will have a chance to reorient policy on a path that has at least a chance to succeed. They will have several options to consider.
Current U.S. strategy has clearly failed to produce stability in Iraq. Without changes, the status quo of U.S. policy is at serious risk of contributing to the fracturing of Iraq into a new and even more violent civil war.
The U.S. cannot afford to sit idly by and provide Baghdad and various militias – some of whom are directly led and allied with Teheran—services such as air power, intelligence, training, and some ground support without demanding considerable concessions in return. There are several things that must change politically in Iraq or the U.S. must make a credible threat to withdraw all military support—though not abandoning the region diplomatically or in humanitarian support.
We should put serious pressure on several constituents in Iraq to come to political accommodation or leave the matter to them to resolve—matter such as:
KRG’s ability to keep a semblance of tribal and political party unity. The Kurds are the most secular, democratic minded, and open society in the Middle East outside of Israel. They have the lowest levels of violence in the country and thus far have the least amount of religious conflicts among their residents, whether Christian, Yazidi, Sunni, Shia, or others. But under the façade of unity, tribal or ideological allegiances reign supreme. The two dominant Kurdish tribes, the Barzani and the Talibani, although sharing some interests, differ on priorities and policies. Added to that is the emergence of an increasingly strong third party, the Goran or “the Change” that has scrambled the traditional balance of power.
There exists an undercurrent of uncertainty about their future. President Barzani has spoken often about his commitment to Kurdish independence and is expected to hold a referendum on this issue within months. But it is not clear if all Kurdish leaders are enthusiastic in their support. It is worthwhile remembering that the Barzani and Talebani tribes reached a truce and buried the hatchet in 2003 after years of bloodletting, and that the latter has traditionally cooperated with Baghdad more readily than the former.
The Kurd/Baghdad disputes. The Baghdad government and the KRG need each other. Both have capabilities and resources that could benefit both parties. Yet neither are willing to give in on too many key issues and the results have been years of frustration, uncooperative attitudes, and often outright opposition to each other.
The problem here is twofold and both sides have been insincere. Because the Kurds have often talked about independence and in many ways already act as if they are independent, Baghdad has refused to give them the weapons and their portion of oil income allocated to them. Since the discovery of oil and gas in Kurdistan, another huge bone of contention over ownership and distribution of income has emerged. Kurds claim to own all of it. If the U.S. again put significant diplomatic capitol in convincing Erbil and Baghdad to come to accommodation, both would benefit in trade, security, and expanding economic opportunities.
Sunni/Shia Enigma. The divisions are so deep and serious, it’s virtually certain Washington cannot help broker a peace here. Reform can only come from within, and it must if there’s ever to be peace in the region. But if Abadi and his government are not willing to make meaningful concessions to how the Sunnis are included in the government – and unless the Sunnis are willing to take risks to develop confidence building measures with the Shia government—then it is likely that after the ISIS flag has been buried, a new possibly more radical Sunni Islamic group will emerge and the fight will merely continue in a different form.
Failing in the above, there is another outcome to consider: Diplomacy, not Militancy. The U.S. should fundamentally reorient its foreign policy in the Middle East away from one almost addicted to the application of lethal military power towards one focused on diplomatically acknowledging the ability of the people of Iraq to determine their own political path forward. That could mean allowing for Kurdish independence, an autonomous or independent Sunni region or state, and a Shia-dominated land with Baghdad as its capitol, should each constituency desire to do so. While that’s easier said than done, the important point is there are no easy solutions to the deep-seated conflicts in the region, but we must let solutions come from within. The United States would not try to force any outcome on the ethnicities within Iraq, but leave the people of the country to figure it out, providing diplomatic and humanitarian assistance where requested. Here’s how it would work.
The major new element of this concept would first be the withdrawal of our military from Iraq over a five-year period and a new policy whereby we would no longer provide arms or training to any force of any country. At the same time we would ramp up significantly our diplomatic activity and humanitarian assistance. There are many substantive challenges and historic animosities between the Shia-dominated part of Iraq, the Sunni-dominated sections, and the Kurdistan region, not to mention multiple and conflicting interests between the states of the region.
The US should deploy considerably more diplomatic assets than is currently the case aimed at helping to resolve differences between these various groups and states in an attempt to reduce violence and create stability. Concurrently, spending only a fraction as much as is presently spent on lethal actions, the US should expand and improve provisions of humanitarian aid to all the parties where displaced persons currently live and once sufficient stability has been achieved, be prepared to provide funds and material to rebuild areas destroyed by war.
Much evidence supports the conclusion that our routine and substantial arming and training of various militias and armies has done nothing but increased the resistance of each to make concessions and serious negotiations to resolve disputes. For example, last year Barbara Walter, a political scientist from the University of California, San Diego, published research detailing the motivations for parties within a civil war. Her research found that groups fighting a civil war “must believe that they cannot win a military victory in order to have incentives to accept a compromise agreement. As long as one group believes it can win total control of a state, it has incentives to keep fighting, forcing its adversaries to do the same.”
The so-called moderate Islamic rebels supported by the US have incentive to avoid compromises in the hopes that Washington will support them with airpower or other aide that will allow it to eventually prevail over their opponents. Meanwhile, the al-Assad regime has been encouraged to continue fighting as a result of external support from Russia and Iran, among others. So long as both sides have external support, neither have incentive to make necessary compromise. Unless we desire to see the war continue without end, a change in policy is required.
The suggestion that the US end the military-first policy will no doubt be reviled and attacked by the foreign policy establishment, comprised mostly of an odd marriage of liberal interventionists and neoconservatives—the still largely unrepentant band of ideologues most responsible for getting us into this quagmire in the first place— as an abandonment of “leadership” and condemning the region to warfare. I argue that it doesn’t take much honest observation to recognize that U.S. policies have been grossly ineffective if not outright counterproductive for the past 40 years.
The fact is, the results of our policies have resulted in an increase in the violence, bloodshed, and terrorist threats to the U.S. arising from the Middle East. It is time to stop pouring weapons and ammunition into this conflict, backing chosen sides with airpower, and provide diplomatic and humanitarian support. To resolve this highly complex and violent conflict, we must foster internal efforts to reform the region. We simply must accept there is no military solution to this political conflict.