- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London., Adam RawnsleyAdam Rawnsley is a Philadelphia-based reporter covering technology and national security. He co-authors FP’s Situation Report newsletter and has written for The Daily Beast, Wired, and War Is Boring.
Mosul update. No one thought the road to Mosul would be easy, and Iraqi and Kurdish forces are taking it slow, fighting through villages and roadside bombs as they battle their way to the outskirts of the Islamic State-held city.
On Wednesday, after moving from the south and east, the Iraqi troops were ordered to take a 48-hour pause in their advance, according to the Wall Street Journal, in order to consolidate gains and allow follow-on forces to catch up. A Kurdish general predicted that it would take two months to take the city.
Elsewhere, Lt Gen Qassim al-Maliki, commander of the Iraqi 9th armored division, told CNN that his forces had cleared 13 villages to the south of the city in the first two days of fighting, while taking out dozens of suicide vehicles and clearing roadside bombs. “The forces now are dealing with small pockets of Daesh members hiding in makeshift tunnels,” he said, using an alternate name for the Islamic State.
Human shields. The expected wave of refugees expected to flow out of Mosul once the fight for the city itself begins has yet to materialize, but Iraqi and Kurdish forces are still well outside the city. There’s evidence that ISIS is already using human shields however. “This has been going on for several weeks where we’ve seen civilians being forcibly detained and their movements being prevented where they can’t get out of Mosul,” Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis told reporters Tuesday. “They are being held there against their will.”
Inside Mosul, reports are emerging that paranoia and brutality are rampant, as ISIS has launched a new campaign of terror and revenge, killing anyone suspected of trying to communicate with the outside world, or flee the city.
Who’s bombing Mosul? There appears to be some confusion over whether or not Turkey has reached a deal with the U.S.-led coalition to participate in the airstrikes on Mosul. On Tuesday, the Turkish government Tweeted comments by Defense Minister Fikri Isik that, “we reached an agreement with coalition forces to include our Air Force into #Mosul operation.” Problem is, that message doesn’t appear to have reached the coalition. Two U.S. defense officials told SitRep they had not heard of any such deal, and that Turkey had not been added to Tuesday’s Air Tasking Order, which assigns targets for airstrikes.
Where are the Shiite militias? They’re staying out of the fight and holding positions well outside of the city at staging bases near Makhmour, U.S. defense officials have told SitRep. The Iranian-backed fighters and their advisors from the Iranian Qods force are expected to eventually deploy west of Mosul near the town of Tal Afar to establish blocking positions as ISIS fighters attempt to flee west to Syria.
Economic cost of losing Mosul. During the height of its power in Iraq in 2015, the Islamic State was able to pull in about $30 million per month from taxation and extortion. But those days are over, Hisham al-Hashimi, an expert on ISIS who advises the Iraqi government, told the AP. The militant group currently rakes in about $4 million per month from taxes in Mosul alone, so losing the city and being pushed out of its last urban stronghold in the country would be a huge economic blow to the organization.
What’s next. We’ll get an update on the fight Wednesday morning at 10:00 a.m. when the American ground commander working with the Iraqis on the Mosul offensive, Maj. Gen. Gary Volesky, briefs reporters at the Pentagon. Livestream here. And head of U.S. central Command, Gen. Joseph Votel, discusses U.S. strategy in the Middle East at 12:00 p.m. at the Center for American Progress. Livestream here.
On Thursday, Defense Secretary Ash Carter heads out on a trip to the Middle East and Europe, stopping off in Turkey, United Arab Emirates, France and Belgium. We would be surprised if Baghdad wasn’t added to the list, as well. Carter will sit down with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, with whom Washington has had an uneasy relationship since the failed military coup in Ankara in July.
Good morning and as always, if you have any thoughts, announcements, tips, or national security-related events to share, please pass them along to SitRep HQ. Best way is to send them to: email@example.com or on Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley
Satellite imagery posted on Chinese social media hints that China may have pressed its Guizhou Soar Dragon drone into production, Defence Blog reports. Imagery of the Chengdu Aircraft Corporation’s airfield shows two drones that closely resemble the Soar Dragon parked on the apron of the facility. The Soar Dragon bears a resemblance to the Raytheon-built RQ-4 Global Hawk drone used by the U.S. Air Force and Navy. Pictures of the Chengdu Aircraft plant taken in July showed other Soar Dragons under construction
China’s saying it might consider throwing a bone to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte ahead of his visit to Beijing. The two countries have clashed over rival maritime territorial claims in the South China Sea but anonymous Chinese government source tell Reuters that they’re thinking about letting fishermen from the Philippines use the waters off the disputed Scarborough Shoal without objection. The offer, for the moment, isn’t firm and comes with conditions — conditions which the sources declined to spell out.
As the noose tightens around the Islamic State’s last strongholds in Iraq and Syria, Europe is bracing for the prospect of foreign fighters heading home to flee the collapsing caliphate. Julian King, the European Union’s Commissioner for Security, said that he’s not worried about a flood tide of returning foreign fighters, but rather the “very serious” threat that a small number of returnees could pose as the fight to liberate Mosul drags on. Around 2,500 Europeans have traveled abroad to various battlefield, according to King.
Reuters gets the scoop on a previously unreported incident of suspected chemical weapons use by the Islamic State in Iraq — a threat anonymous U.S. defense officials tell the wire service they expect to see more of as the campaign to liberate Mosul continues. American troops have reportedly “confirmed” the presence of mustard agent in munitions fired by the jihadist group. In September, the Defense Department reported a suspected case of chemical weapons use by the Islamic State against American troops in Iraq only to see subsequent laboratory testing discount the presence of sulphur mustard.
The Taliban are in the midst of secret (or at least formerly secret) talks in Qatar opposite the Afghan government. Anonymous senior Afghan officials tell Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reports that Afghan and Taliban officials have been engaged in talks since September. The meeting represents the first engagement between the two sides since the U.S. military killed Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansoor in a drone strike in Pakistan.
The seas around the Middle East are tense for American ships following a spate of encounters between Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy in the Persian Gulf and off the coast of Yemen, where Houthi militants have been launching missiles at U.S. ships. The American Enterprise Institute’s Matthew McInnis offers a few reasons why the region is getting more dangerous. According to McInnis, Iran is keen to emphasize that it’s still a sworn foe of the U.S., despite the recent nuclear agreement and it’s been steadily improving its weapons capabilities and those of its proxies.
The Ecuadorian government confirmed in a statement that it has stopped providing Internet access to its most famous houseguest, Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks. The New York Times reports that a statement from Ecuadorian foreign ministry issued on Tuesday explained that officials cut off Assange’s Internet access because it did not want to “interfere in electoral processes” of the United States — an apparent reference to WikiLeaks’ publishing of emails hacked from the Clinton campaign’s network. WikiLeaks accused the State Department of pressuring Ecuador to stop the release of the hacked data, but the Department denied the claims in a statement on Tuesday.
Photo Credit: Feriq Ferec/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images