Centcom Details Plan for Retaking Mosul
Five Iraqi brigades will assault the Islamic State-held city.
The Pentagon is readying Iraqi troops to launch a springtime assault and wrest the northern city of Mosul back from the Islamic State, a senior U.S. military official said Thursday. But the final victory over the extremists won’t come through military force, and must win over Muslims who are already skeptical of American power, experts warned.
It’s an argument the Obama administration has echoed for months as Washington decides how much might to devote to the battle zone where the Islamic State is terrorizing swaths of Iraq and Syria in its quest to create a Sunni caliphate.
Ultimately, experts said, Iraqis and Syrians themselves must decide to reject extremist ideology — and to do so, they must feel they have the full backing of their respective governments. After nearly a decade of war in Iraq, distrust of Washington runs deep among many Arabs in the Middle East.
In other words, many may believe that “if the Americans are fighting ISIS, maybe ISIS is not that bad,” said former Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher, speaking to reporters Thursday at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. He was using an acronym for the Islamic State.
The Pentagon is still weighing whether to send U.S. advisors or other troops to the planned mission in Mosul, which is set to begin in April or May and will rely on as many as 25,000 Iraqi and Kurdish security forces, said a U.S. Central Command official who gave journalists far more details about the upcoming operation than expected.
An estimated 2,000 Islamic State fighters are believed to be currently inside Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, said the Centcom official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The initial attack on Mosul will involve five Iraqi army brigades that will be trained beforehand by U.S. forces and other members of the global coalition to defeat the Islamic State. An estimated 2,000 Iraq troops make up a single brigade.
Three smaller Iraqi Army brigades will be used as a reserve force, the Centcom official said, and three Kurdish Peshmerga brigades “will help contain from the north and isolate from the west.”
Additionally, the plans call for creating a “Mosul fighting force,” comprised mostly of the city’s former police officers. U.S. special operations forces are already training about 100 fighters who will then help train a larger force. Finally, U.S. special operations forces are preparing a brigade-size equivalent of counterterrorism commando forces for the offensive, the Centcom official said.
It is highly unusual for the U.S. military to detail battle plans and, effectively, give their opponents time to mobilize against them. The Centcom official indicated that the Islamic State is being stretched thin — despite some recent gains in western Iraq — and said it has largely become difficult for the extremists to attack and seize ground.
Since the start of the U.S. campaign against the Islamic State last summer, the group has been forced to fight on three fronts: against Iraq and Kurdish security forces, U.S. and coalition air power, and the Syrian regime, the Centcom official said.
It was a tacit acknowledgment that the United States and the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are working in tandem against the Islamic State, although the Obama administration maintains there is no direct coordination. The United States has long sought to help moderate Sunni rebels oust Assad from power in Syria’s four-year civil war, a conflict that helped give rise to the Islamic State and other militants frustrated with his government.
That remains a major — and seemingly insurmountable — hurdle in the Islamic State’s defeat. Muasher said victory will come with governments that provide their people with economic and political reforms, including helping to boost job opportunities for young Arab men, who face a 30 percent unemployment rate in some parts of the Middle East, and who may be lured by the payoff extremists can offer them to join the fight.
Some young Arabs, disaffected by Assad or the Shiite-run government in Baghdad, see the Islamic State as “a rallying point against the establishment,” Muasher said. He said there are no “magic wands” to assure victory, adding: “The ideological war is going to take a very long time.”
That makes the U.S. military mission all the more precarious, said Muasher. While U.S. troops in 2007 all but defeated the Islamic State’s predecessor, al Qaeda in Iraq, the group has now morphed into an even more brutal organization, he said. A similar strategy now that relies on U.S. military action might win short-term battlefield successes. But it could, Muasher said, ultimately yield a new group of fighters who are “even more violent and even more barbaric than what we have seen so far.”
The Centcom official offered a far more optimistic view, noting that other Muslim countries, like Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan, all are contributing to the fight — a contrast between law-abiding Islamic governments and the extremists.
The official also highlighted a new agreement between the United States and Turkey, which has resisted being drawn directly into battle, to help train Syrian rebels who are fighting the Islamic State and the Assad regime.
As a fighting force, the Islamic State “is in decline,” the Centcom official said. “Our effects are outpacing its ability to regenerate.”
SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images
Kate Brannen is deputy managing editor at Just Security and a contributor to Foreign Policy, where she previously worked as a senior reporter. @K8brannen