SitRep Mosul: The Lessons So Far

FILE - In this Nov. 16, 2016 file photo, a car bomb explodes next to Iraqi special forces armored vehicles in Mosul, Iraq. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana, File)
FILE - In this Nov. 16, 2016 file photo, a car bomb explodes next to Iraqi special forces armored vehicles in Mosul, Iraq. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana, File)

Joseph V. Micallef is a best-selling military history and world affairs author, and keynote speaker. Follow him on Twitter @JosephVMicallef

The campaign to liberate Mosul is now in its twelfth week. It began on October 16, with the Iraqi Special Operations Forces (ISOF), better known as the Golden Division, advancing from the east. The next day Peshmerga units from Khazer, supported by the Iraqi army's 16th division, began advancing from the north, while in the south the Iraqi army's 9th division, supported by units of the Federal Police, also began to advance. The ISOF made the most significant advance necessitating a two-week break, beginning in week eight, to allow Iraqi and Peshmerga forces in the north and south to advance sufficiently to protect the flanks of the ISOF and consolidate their positions.

So far, the campaign has gone about as expected. Iraqi forces, backed by Sunni militias and Kurdish Peshmerga units, have steadily advanced into the eastern half of Mosul, while Shiite militia units have besieged the town of Tal Afar to the west and held the perimeter to the west of Mosul to cut off any potential escape routes from the city. The Mosul campaign is the final chapter in a broader campaign that began on March 24, 2016, to take control of the outlying region around Mosul and to surround and isolate the city in anticipation of its eventual liberation.

The coalition has held together so far and, according to U.S. Brigadier General Rick Uribe, has even managed to improve the communication and coordination among its different elements. Uribe described the Iraqi forces at being "at their peak." Iraqi troops, especially the elite counterterrorism and Special Forces unit, have performed well. The campaign has not witnessed the disorderly withdrawals or outright abandonment of positions that characterized some of the past engagements of the Iraqi army. A tribute both to an improved professionalism within Iraqi forces as well as the stabilizing influence of embedded U.S. advisors.

Islamic State (IS) militants have responded as anticipated, engaging in a protracted, street-by-street, building-by-building, scorched earth retreat while using improvised explosive devices (IEDs), both stationary and vehicle borne (VBIEDs), along with snipers and mortars, to blunt the Iraqi advance. As usual, IS has proven to be remarkably creative in weaponizing household items, in this case using inexpensive civilian drones to guide VBIEDs to their intended targets or deliver IEDs. We can now add DBIEDs, (drone borne improvised explosive devices) to the lexicon of modern urban warfare.

As expected, IS has used civilians in buildings that housed sniper nests or where its jihadists were otherwise deployed as human shields to protect their militants from aerial attack. On the other hand, IS has stopped short, as had been originally feared, of using civilians as a buffer between its forces and those of the Iraqi military. The mass civilian uprising that had been hoped for by Baghdad has not occurred. The Islamic State has moved quickly with summary executions of any suspected opponents. Either event may still occur, although it is more likely to occur toward the end of the campaign.

It's unlikely that IS forces in Mosul have the manpower to deal simultaneously with both a civilian uprising and the Iraqi military advance. A civilian uprising now would be met with indiscriminate violence and mass executions. Approximately 120,000 of Mosul's civilian population have fled the city. The balance of the city's inhabitants, estimated at between one million to as many as 1.5 million, have remained in their homes waiting for the battle to pass them by.

Significantly, despite numerous reports that Islamic State had manufactured and stockpiled large quantities of poison gas in Mosul in anticipation of the campaign, such weapons have not yet been used. That doesn't mean that they may not be used as the fighting progresses, only that so far there is no definitive proof that any such weapons have been deployed.

The Obama administration's hope that Mosul would be cleared of Islamic State forces before the January 20 inauguration will clearly not happen. That hope was part of a political agenda and was never a realistic military objective.

The Mosul campaign has two distinct phases: the first to liberate eastern Mosul and the second to free the western side of the city. The Tigris River splits Mosul into two separate parts. The western part is the oldest. The "old city" portion is a mass of narrow twisting streets, many of which are too small to allow for vehicular traffic.

By early January approximately 70 percent of eastern Mosul had been liberated from Islamic State forces. The most notable progress has been made in the eastern and southern neighborhoods of the city. In the north, Peshmerga forces have been focusing on clearing IS militants from the area between the city and the Saddam dam to the north. The Iraqi army's 16th division has not penetrated as far into northern Mosul. All but one bridge linking the two halves of the city have been destroyed. U.S. air forces have repeatedly targeted the one remaining bridge and it is expected that it will destroyed as well.

U.S. commanders on the scene have indicated that they expect to be in complete control of the eastern half by Mosul by the end of January or shortly thereafter. Of course, "control" is subject to interpretation. IS militants embedded in the civilian population will likely continue to carry out attacks against Iraqi forces and civilians there.

The second phase of the campaign, the liberation of western Mosul, will likely prove harder. The older portions of the city are a rabbit warren of narrow twisting streets. Many buildings are connected by underground passageways. Many of the older streets have buildings overhanging them, giving them a tunnel like character, and making it more difficult to attack from the air. In addition, IS militants have dug scores of new tunnels. There are approximately 200,000 buildings in Mosul. Virtually every one of them will need to be checked and verified that it has been cleared.

The U.S. commander on the scene, Brigadier General Rick Uribe, has said that he expects that Iraqi forces will be in control of all of Mosul within three months. That timetable is not unrealistic, but it will ultimately depend on a number of factors -- the ability of the coalition to hold together and the impact of what will likely be increasingly desperate measures by Islamic State to hold off a final defeat as the battle nears its end. The impact of the Shiite militias may also prove to be an important variable. To date, they have held defensive positions to the west of Mosul and have not been directly engaged in the campaign to liberate east Mosul. Once the campaign shifts to western Mosul, they may look to advance from the west and get more directly involved. Such a development will like prove to be disruptive to the campaign.

Although IS militants have increased their attacks on Iraqi, especially Shiite, civilian targets elsewhere in response to the Mosul campaign, one significant difference from past military operations is that IS has not been able to mount a significant drive in the Euphrates theater. Historically, Islamic State was operating along two fronts in Iraq: the Euphrates and Tigris River valleys. It is in these valleys where the bulk of Iraq's population lives and which host its largest towns and cities. Baghdad lacked sufficient military strength to go on the offensive in both theaters simultaneously. Often, military operations in one theater would leave the other theater undermanned. Iraqi advances in one theater would invariably bring an IS counterattack in the other theater.

This has not been the case of late, however. On October 21, five days after the start of the latest Mosul campaign, a small contingent of IS militants infiltrated the Kurdish controlled city of Kirkuk, 110-miles southeast of Mosul. Five separate teams, each numbering three to five militants, fanned out across the city. Within 48 hours, however, all the militants had been killed. The militants had come from the Hawija pocket, a small enclave of territory south of Mosul and west of Kirkuk, still controlled by Islamic State.

IS has stepped up terrorist attacks in Baghdad and has repeatedly cut Highway 1, the main road from Baghdad to Mosul, for short periods. IS, however, has been unable to mount a sustained assault in say Anbar province, as it would have been expected to in an earlier period. No doubt its manpower has now been depleted to a point where its ability to mount such diversionary attacks has been reduced to a token level. 

The Mosul campaign is far from over. If the coalition hangs together, it's likely that Mosul will be secured within a three to six-month period and that Raqqa and the last Islamic State enclave in Syria will fall by sometime in 2018. The fall of the Islamic State will end a bloody, brutal and genocidal chapter in the history of the Mideast, although it will not mark the end of the Islamic State organization. What the Islamic State does next, and what jihadist organization will attempt to fill its role, remains to be seen.

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