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The Iraqi Military, The US-led Coalition and the Mosul Operation: The Risk of Snatching Defeat from the Jaws of Victory
As the Mosul operation grinds forward, it is vitally important for the US and its allies to double down on their commitment to supporting the Iraqi Army and the Counter Terrorism Service (CTS, the Iraqi special forces), especially after the eventual liberation of Mosul. Otherwise the Mosul operation will be a hollow victory.
In April 2015 I and a colleague argued that IS was winning. The fall of the last government holdouts in Ramadi, immediately after IS’ tactical withdrawal (under US airstrikes) from Tikrit, showed us that IS was highly operationally capable and able rapidly to move assets and heavy firepower to deploy at will across Iraq and Syria. In Ramadi, while some were claiming that Iraq’s military suffered a loss of will, we saw a force that had bravely held out for two years against a competent and highly professional enemy, only finally succumbing as IS deployed withering rocket fire on the government compound in the city center in combination with multiple truck bombs equivalent in size to the Oklahoma City bombing. Without outside support, the remaining government elements could fight no longer.
At the time we called for an increase in American and coalition direct assistance to Iraqi forces. Having identified that the only Iraqi forces with the technical capability to call in US and Coalition airstrikes was the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service (CTS, the special operations forces), we advocated additional US assistance to those units and the embedding of US and Coalition personnel within those units on the battlefield.
In December 2015 in Ramadi, we saw the successful employment of this strategy, as American and Australian special forces advanced into Ramadi alongside the Iraqi CTS, providing technical support, coordinating airstrikes, and, importantly, bolstering the morale of these brave Iraqi soldiers by showing the commitment that can only be demonstrated by fighting alongside your allies. As an example, Australian JTACs helped call in 96 airstrikes on IS positions in Ramadi, coordinating with CTS. Meanwhile, US trainers taught Iraqi forces to deploy floating ribbon bridges, which enabled the advance into Ramadi and have also been deployed in the recent Qayyarah operation. Combined with relatively new technology such as Virtual Advise and Assist, a new hybrid form of security cooperation is coming into being.
But the recapture of Ramadi in December and the operation in Fallujah in May and June uncovered a remaining deficiency in the campaign against IS in Iraq: That is the regular Iraqi army. In Ramadi the fighting was done mostly by the CTS with Coalition air support. The Iraqi Army’s 10th Division, which was supposed to play a major role in the operation, ended up doing not much more than acting as a logistical support element for the CTS. The regular Iraqi army was also almost entirely absent from the Fallujah operation. Again, the burden is falling on the CTS and related police special paramilitary forces. The other major pro-government forces on the ground are the (largely Shi’ite) militias, the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU). If those militias had proven themselves a competent military force, then we could forgive the use of irregular forces in what is a fight for national survival. However, these forces have been mostly unsuccessful in every operation they have been involved in. They have no great victories to boast of, although they have lost tremendous numbers of martyrs. Their role can only be to provide outer cordon static security. Static security is an important function, but it is a support role to the regular Iraqi army, which needs to be the tip of the spear. This then leaves us with the question of how to bring the regular Iraqi Army back into the fight. In 2013 and 2014 the 7th Division of the Iraqi Army, 99% Sunni, fought IS virtually alone, until it was almost completely destroyed. So the army has the will to fight, with the right backing.
US Training Efforts
In December 2014, the US government authorized $1.62 billion for the Iraq Train and Equip Fund (ITEF) to: “rebuild ISF capabilities to conduct offensive operations to liberate ISIL held territory” through the equipping of 65,000 personnel across twelve brigades (nine ISF and three Peshmerga). Many of the HMMWVs, MRAPs and other armored vehicles such as the Oshkosh M-ATV in the current Mosul Offensive are new and were purchased or donated as part of this aid, while the 16th and 15th Iraqi Army (IA) divisions in the offensive have been closely involved in this effort. The 16th has also some limited combat experience prior to Mosul, having fought in the Fallujah-Ramadi corridor with the Rapid Response Division (also in the Mosul Operation) and coordinating with tribal fighters from the Albu Issa.
According to Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR), prior to the Mosul Operation, 13,500 Iraqi security forces including more than 4,000 Iraqi soldiers, 1,500 counterterrorism service soldiers, 6,000 Peshmerga, nearly 1,000 federal police and 300 border guards had been trained or retrained, well below the initial target of re-training 65,000 soldiers. This is important, because the IA are suffering a steady rate of attrition of men and equipment in fighting within and around Mosul.
Retention compounds this problem; by late 2015, it was clear there were not enough young Iraq men seeking re-enrollment and re-training in the Iraqi Army. By June 2016, retired LTG Mick Bednarek, commander of the training effort between 2013 and 2015, noted that retention was still a challenge. Troop losses are only one issue. One report from Mosul noted as many as 20 damaged HMMWVs needed repairing per day. In a way, this represents progress: HMMWVs were once thought inappropriate for the IA, since there were not enough trained mechanics for the special maintenance they require.
Yet it is vitally important to continue to rebuild the Iraqi Army. Without a doubling down of efforts to rebuild this central plank of the Iraqi nation, we will see US influence dissipate after the liberation of Mosul as the security and political landscape is ceded to Iranian-affiliated militias, the Kurds increasingly go it alone, and Iraq fragments along sectarian and ethnic lines.
The Iraqi Army’s Performance During the Mosul Operation
Indeed, despite shortcomings in the rebuild of the military, the Iraqi armed forces have performed well during the Mosul operation.
The Iraqi Army has shown a degree of endurance and adaptivity, mixing an array of weapons systems to meet needs, for example mounting Kornet missile launchers on HMMWVs, Russian machine guns on M1A1s and acting quickly on intelligence, as in the case of the Fallujah IS convoy attack by Iraqi helicopters and the collection of real-time battlefield intelligence from civilians in Mosul. In the current operation, Iraqi military units have begun using commercial drones to spot IS, and initiate combat. This represents considerable progress from the static, defensive “checkpoint force” that characterized much of the regular army at the time of the 2014 IS blitzkrieg.
From the north, the 16th Division of the Iraqi army is supporting CTS operations into Mosul, in the west of Mosul, the 9th Armored division (which is equipped with M1 Abrams tanks) is tightening the siege of IS positions, the 17th Division is solidifying gains in the Shirqat area of northern Salahaddin, some elements of the 15th Division are cooperating with PMU units in the Tal Afar area to the west of Mosul on the Syrian border and three brigades of the paramilitary Federal Police’s 5th Division are controlling the south east approaches to Mosul. However, there is little doubt that the most effective Iraqi military unit operating in Mosul is the CTS.
In the defense of Mosul, IS has utilized a wide array of tactics, including the use of tunnel complexes kilometers long, drilled in some cases with heavy boring equipment (possibly imported from Turkey and using slave labor) and knocking holes in houses to quickly run between positions. This kind of fighting is not so much room to room, rather it is 360-degree combat to clear every inch of ground. Combined with the use of human shields and at least 600 car bombs so far in the Mosul Operation alone (lethal at close range where Iraqi forces have only seconds to react with anti-tank weapons) this has greatly slowed the clearing of the east side of the city and surrounding villages. The built up west side of the city, with higher buildings, promises to be even harder.
The fierce IS defense of Mosul (which was arguably caused by the PMU cutting off the IS escape routes from Mosul thus rendering a tactical withdrawal impossible) means that the operation will take many months. The longer the operation takes, the more the criticism of the regular army will grow – with Baghdad being blamed for not deploying the PMU into Mosul – while the CTS and the regular army will be progressively shredded by the vicious urban combat.
Hence the likelihood is that the eventual victory in Mosul will leave the regular army and CTS a shell of their former selves, while the PMU will emerge as the best armed and equipped fighting force inside Iraq. If the estimate of 5,000 IS fighters is correct, they have roughly 4,000 fighters left, after taking as many as 1000 casualties since mid-October. Under attack on many fronts, but fighting tenaciously, it is not unreasonable to assume IS is taking dozens of casualties a day. Presuming they are willing to accept a very high rate of casualties, this means that the operation could easily go on until February or March or even well into April. Iraqi Army and CTS units have noted that very few IS fighters surrender. The tenacity of IS fighters operating in a well-fortified urban environment is well documented. For instance, in one case, Kurdish Peshmerga forces took 5 hours to kill a single IS fighter in a tunnel, which they eventually achieved by burning tires at the tunnel entrance.
In this vicious war of attrition, the Iraqi military is also taking high casualties. In the absence of official casualty reports, news agencies have nonetheless reported individual units taking serious losses; at least 20 CTS soldiers were injured in a single ambush witnessed by CNN on November 8th. The front lines have only moved forward partially since then, clearing 10-15% of the city, or up to 60% of east Mosul by some accounts, a similar rate of casualties over the course of the liberation would hollow out the CTS, just as the 7th Division was destroyed fighting IS in Anbar in 2013 and 2014. There reports that Prime Minister Abadi has ordered the CTS to advance without waiting for the 15th and 16th Army divisions and the Ministry of Interior Rapid Response brigades to enter the city, leaving the CTS completely exposed. Though there does, thankfully, seem to be an operational pause in place over the last 48 hours.
By some accounts, CTS were only at 35% of their strength before commencing the offensive and according to at least one commander, are now spread thinly across Iraq. An ongoing high rate of casualties risks making CTS completely combat ineffective, which would leave the liberation of Mosul a pyrrhic victory; since the unit most responsible for recapturing Iraq from IS would be destroyed by the effort.
The Reception of the CTS in Mosul
There are good news stories coming out of liberated parts of Mosul. The first is the well documented positive reception CTS has had in cleared neighborhoods, with many residents expressing the wish that Iraqi forces will stay on. This is in sharp contrast to widespread reports of animosity toward federal government forces in Mosul prior to 2014. Importantly, locals interviewed by Time, the Wall Street Journal, The Times and many other publications suggest that IS has become despised in Mosul to the point where any attacking force may have a “reservoir” of goodwill following liberation.
Another factor in the positive reception of IA and CTS forces is a high percentage of Sunni commanders in their ranks, with leading officers including General Najim al Jabouri, Brigadier-General Mohamed al Jubouri and Major General Juma Anad al Jubouri of the Jubour tribe, while many from the Obaid tribe from the provinces of Salahaddin and Ninewa are also involved. Smaller tribes, such as the Sabawi tribe, appear to have contributed to the PMU effort outside of Mosul, although they have been accused of abuses (as have Teheran-backed PMU units such as Asaib Ahl al-Haq, and Kurdish and Yezidi forces which have also been accused of abusing civilians.)
In stark contrast, CTS has been extremely careful (according to multiple open source news reports) to limit damage to property and avoid civilian casualties, in some cases damaging roads with air strikes (“terrain denial”) rather than destroying car bombs, in order to avoid causing colossal explosions which would lead to collateral civilian casualties. This has been confirmed by UN observers, who recently said CTS had strongly prioritized protecting civilians. Night vision devices have also been used to snipe at IS at night when civilians are generally sheltering in their homes.
Meanwhile, CTS and other units in the offensive have been delivering aid to residents in areas of different ethnicity, for example, Ministry of Interior Federal Police units delivered aid in Shura District, working in conjunction with UN agencies.
Elsewhere, CTS has treated and evacuated wounded civilians. Combined with Iraqi Army radio broadcasts which appear to have reassured many residents, this amounts to an unprecedented indigenous Iraqi counterinsurgency policy that bodes well for stability operations. Yet disappointingly, the emphasis is on “stability” over reconstruction. Tikrit, for example, has “stabilized” with widespread pan-sectarian security cooperation and over 95% of IDPs returning since the spring, but an unacceptable number of homes are damaged as is almost all public infrastructure. Having neglected the rebuilding of Tikrit, the funds allocated to rebuild Ramadi and Fallujah are far from optimal, meaning that rebuilding Mosul will present a massive economic challenge to the Iraqi government in 2017 and 2018.
The US-led effort to help the Iraqi military rebuild itself and recapture the country has yielded tremendous results, with the Iraqi Army and Counter Terrorism Service showing that it has the capacity to operate professionally and humanely with great bravery. But the battle of Mosul will exhaust the military, leaving the largely (though not exclusively) pro-Iranian PMU militias as the most powerful force in the country and hence leaving the American-led coalition with little to show for its work liberating Iraq. This will ensure post-IS Iraq remains a source of instability for the region and the world. Therefore, it is vitally important for the US and its allies to double down on their commitment to supporting the Iraqi Army and CTS, especially after the eventual liberation of Mosul.