Preventing Mosul from Becoming Fallujah on a Grand Scale
Iraqi forces have stalled in their attempt to retake Mosul, the nation’s second largest city. They are facing the nightmare scenario envisioned by US Marine Corps planners in the 1990s when we undertook a series of experiments designed to improve our urban combat capabilities.
Fighting among a population ties the hands of the attacking force unless it decides to rubble buildings and accepts the awful civilian casualties that would result. It is a testament to the Iraqis that they have rejected that option. However, this means that Iraqi forces are not able to use artillery and airpower to their full capabilities. The Iraqi government to date has warned the population to shelter in place rather than evacuate, but Iraq’s generals are now reconsidering that approach.
When we faced similar problems in our urban experimentation, many of us advocated developing directed energy non-lethal weapons that would temporarily incapacitate enemy fighters and any civilians in the buildings allowing for a less deadly approach to urban combat. For a number of reasons, policy makers decided not to pursue the non-lethal option. That left many of us with the opinion that draining the city of the civilian population before attacking it was a preferable option to fighting among the population. During the fighting in Fallujah earlier this year, much of the population self-evacuated; however, that caused a different set of problems because the civilians ended up stuck in the open desert lacking food, water, or basic shelter.
The Islamic State is using the citizens of Mosul as human shields, but as was the case in Fallujah, the population will flee once the city’s outer ISIS check points are breached by Iraqi security forces. This will be doubly true if civilians are encouraged to evacuate. At that point, we will see hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) rather than the tens of thousands that fled Fallujah. If the Iraqi government is not prepared for that influx, Iraq will have a humanitarian disaster on a biblical scale.
Consequently, if the Iraqis want to switch tactics and encourage evacuation, they need to prepare for a temporary mass relocation. That will mean setting up temporary camps, and that will take time.
If the Iraqis will agree to an operational pause, facilities can be set up fairly quickly. We have the experience and resources to help nongovernmental and interagency organizations prepare camps to temporarily house IDPs until the city can be cleared of Islamic State fighters. This will not alleviate the destruction caused by the actual fighting, but it will help prevent the tortuous disregard for civilian well-being that occurred in the aftermath of the Fallujah fighting.
Humanitarian concerns aside, there are good public policy reasons to prepare to shelter the displaced civilians. The destruction of Fallujah did nothing to endear the Iraqi government to the Sunni population of that chronically troublesome city. Providing shelter, food, and water is good as far as it goes; but if properly done, the organization of the camps can go a long way toward setting Mosul up for successful recovery from the fighting. It will be a security necessity to separate military age males from their families for biometric screening and to ensure that hard core ISIS fighters are weeded out, but reuniting legitimate male family members with the women and children should be a priority. In the meantime, emphasis should be on organizing camps by Mosul neighborhoods, along ethnic and religious lines. This serves several purposes. First, it reduces the chances for ethnic and sectarian violence in the camps. Second, it allows for some sense of normality providing the ability for neighbors and family to reunite.
Finally, if surviving local government and security officials are allowed to administer neighborhood areas of camps, it will facilitate rebuilding. Neighborhoods can be reoccupied as they are declared cleared.
Trying to build governance from scratch is difficult at best. Rebuilding from an existing framework is much more efficient. The maxim that, “all politics is local” is true for governance as well. If IDPs can reoccupy their city with coherent local leadership in place, residents will have a better probability of recovery, and their chances of being loyal to the Iraqi central government are enhanced.
Evacuation, even if done properly, will be traumatic; but it will save countless lives among civilians and Iraqi security forces. The initial loss of Mosul was a disaster, but killing thousands of civilians to retake it would be a tragedy. Then, when the dust settles we should reconsider non-lethal weapons.