While all eyes are on the U.S. presidential race, Washington’s foreign-policy machine is grappling with a “day-after” humanitarian crisis in a northern Iraqi city poised for liberation from the Islamic State. As Iraqi security forces fight their way street by street into the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul, the United States, United Nations, and international nongovernmental organizations are mustering as much preparation as possible to deal with the aftermath of the city’s liberation.
“We’ve known for weeks and months [Mosul’s liberation] is coming,” a senior State Department official told reporters during a Monday call. As such, the international community has “one of the best prepared responses to a humanitarian emergency that is expected that we have seen, certainly in a long time,” another senior State Department official added. Both officials spoke on condition of not being identified by name.
Planning has not been Washington’s strong suit when it comes to Iraq: The Defense Department fretted in 2002 that policymakers in George W. Bush’s administration had not clearly thought through what would happen after the March 2003 invasion. As it turned out, the U.S. military remained in Iraq for nearly nine years, costing taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars and suffering the deaths of nearly 4,500 American troops.
In Mosul, the challenge is also daunting. Last month, the U.N. refugee agency’s top representative in Iraq, Bruno Geddo, warned the battle for Mosul could create “one of the largest man-made disasters” in years.
The Iraqi Army has begun pushing into districts near Mosul, a week after fighting for the city’s eastern front. While the United States mulls sending military advisors in, it is augmenting Iraqi forces with close air support. But taking the city will not be easy. Islamic State fighters, dug in and expecting a fight, have bogged down Iraqi forces in a fierce battle of close-quarters urban warfare complete with car bombs, sniper fire, and improvised explosive devices. This leaves civilians looking to flee the city at great risk.
The numbers, as compiled and distributed by the State Department, speak for themselves:
Since the operation in Mosul began, 33,000 people have been displaced. Although this is lower than initially expected, “Iraqi and Kurdish forces have not yet reached the populous areas of Mosul city,” said one senior State official, meaning the United States anticipates the worst is yet to come.
Washington is planning for a “worst-case scenario” with up to 700,000 people displaced in the wake of the Mosul operation.
Food for 1.25 million people has been prepositioned in anticipation of Mosul’s liberation.
Medicine and medical equipment is stockpiled to serve 300,000 people with 100 ambulances at the ready.
Fifty trucks are running per day in a scramble to preposition supplies.
Beyond immediate prepositioned supplies, the State Department said the United States and international partners had food ready for 2.3 million people.
By mid-December, the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) expects to have camps ready for 250,000 people displaced by the fighting.
The international community has secured pledges of $2 billion to support the Mosul operation.
The United States has given $1.1 billion in aid to Iraq since 2014 and $513 million in 2016 alone.
Since the Islamic State began seizing land in Iraq in 2014, 3.2 million people have been forced from their homes and 10 million need assistance.
But all this preparation may not be enough. “The Mosul post-liberation operation is prepared and well-coordinated,” said the State Department official. “But it is war, and so it’s unpredictable and uncertain.”
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