The Cable

Pentagon Admits Divulging Mosul Plans a Mistake

Gen. Lloyd Austin, head of Central Command, is launching an inquiry into the Feb. 19 briefing.

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter And Gen. Dempsey Testify To Senate Committee On Defense Budget
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 03: Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey (R) testifies while Defense Secretary Ashton Carter (L) listens during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill March 3, 2015 in Washington, DC. The committee is hearing testimony global security issues and President Obamas FY2016 Department of Defense budget request. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Gen. Lloyd Austin, the head of U.S. Central Command, has launched an inquiry into the Feb. 19 background briefing during which a U.S. military official provided reporters an unusual level of detail about the upcoming battle to retake Mosul from the Islamic State.

The level of detail surprised reporters, but more importantly, the discussion of a timeline angered Iraqi officials, who said it was up to Iraq to decide when the assault should begin.

Rather than April or May, as Centcom suggested, defense officials are now indicating that an operation to retake Mosul could be months away.

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey were asked about the controversial briefing during a Tuesday hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

“That was clearly neither accurate information, and if it had been accurate, it shouldn’t have been blurted out. So it was wrong on both scores,” Carter told lawmakers.

The disclosures also baffled and upset lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

“Given the serious impact of these disclosures, we want to know who at U.S. Central Command was responsible for this briefing, and whether they had prior approval from the White House to divulge this information,” said Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham in a Feb. 20 letter to President Barack Obama.

Centcom’s inquiry is now seeking to answer those questions, Dempsey said.

The Pentagon needs to strive to be transparent “but not with secrets and not with war plans,” Carter said. “Every once and a while, someone gets out in front of their skis.”

During the Feb. 19 conference call with reporters, a Centcom official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, outlined what it would take to wrest the northern city of Mosul back from the Islamic State.

He said the initial attack on Mosul would involve five Iraqi army brigades, each of which would include roughly 2,000 troops.

Three smaller Iraqi Army brigades would be used as a reserve force, the Centcom official said, and three Kurdish Peshmerga brigades would “help contain from the north and isolate from the west.”

Additionally, the official said the plans called for creating a “Mosul fighting force,” comprised mostly of the city’s former police officers.

The Centcom official said that the battle could begin as early as April or May.

Obama administration officials, including Carter, have been walking back those plans ever since. Meanwhile, Centcom maintains that the briefing provided nothing of operational value to the Islamic State and that any timeline given was meant to be notional.

Photo by Mark Wilson/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. Twitter: @K8brannen
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