Iraqi Defense Minister Khalid al-Obaidi meeting troops on the frontline. Photo: al-Obaidi/twitter
In June 2014 the Islamic State (ISIS) group managed to take-over Iraq’s second-city Mosul in only a short couple of days, faster than they likely ever hoped or dreamed. The Iraqi Army in that region were unable to mount a successful fight in the defense of Mosul and fell back, enabling that Islamist group to undertake a rampage across Northern Iraq, attacking the Kurdistan Region in August and massacring the Yazidis of Shingal.
As it sought to re-organize with the support of a multinational coalition the United States built shortly thereafter, the Iraqis managed to retake Tikrit from the group in early 2015. But then suffered another setback in May of that year, just under a year after Mosul’s fall, when ISIS managed to takeover Anbar Province’s provincial capital Ramadi.
The Iraqis finally managed to retake Ramadi as 2015 came to a close with decisive coalition air support. At present they have built-up an array of forces on the Makhmour front which they hope to use as a launch-pad to eventually retake all of Mosul from ISIS. However that offensive has gotten off to a slow start and is currently stalled.
So, is the Iraqi Army up to the task of liberating Mosul? Does it have the resources and an effective command structure to successfully pull off such a task? Have any successful changes been made to ensure another June 2014 never happens again?
I posed such questions to the Iraq-analyst Michael Knights, a Lafer fellow of The Washington Institute. Knights believes that a lot of talk about the failures of the Iraqi Army is exaggerated and has argued the picture is not as bleak as many believe it to be.
“The idea that the Iraqi Army disappeared in June 2014 has always been a fantasy,” Knights told Rudaw English, “Anyone who followed the issue closely knows that 19 brigades of the Iraqi Army disappeared but 36 kept fighting, and they were supported by a further 24 brigades of Federal Police, which are like the Kurdish Zeravani brigades.”
“So an army/Federal Police force that was 85 brigades strong before the fall of Mosul dropped to 60 brigades after the fall of Mosul. Now it is back up to 79 brigades. This army/Federal Police force recaptured Tikrit, Ramadi, Bayji, Hit and are readying to recapture Mosul. That doesn’t sound like a defunct force does it?”
Knights has attributed the failures in Mosul to indecisive leadership. Which leads to an obvious question: Have tangible reforms in the military been enacted since that time?
“A lot of the corrupt [former Iraqi President Nouri al-] Maliki-era military leaders have been removed since Mosul’s fall,” Knights explained, “We have better army and Federal Police commanders in place. We’ll have to see if such changes stick but the appointment of good ministers (Khalid Ubeidi at Defense and Mohammed Ghabban at Interior) and capable commanders like Staff Lt. Gen Othman Ghanimi as acting chief of staff and Staff Lt. Gen Abd’al-Amir al-Lami as chief of operations gives a good example to mid- and lower-level commanders. You fix it from the top. And that is really helping with the restoration of combat capability in the Iraqi military.”
Tikrit, Baiji, Ramadi, and now Hit too, are areas where the Iraqi military has succeeded in pushing back ISIS. However given the size of Mosul and its much larger and more diverse population it will likely prove to be a much tougher battle.
“Tikrit really is the model [for Mosul’s liberation]: isolate the city from outside. Don’t let Iranian-backed Shia militias run the fight. Then force the ISIS defenders into some small parts of the city, whilst the rest of the city is largely undamaged,” Knights explained.
Knights believes a more protracted and incremental offensive is what is needed to defeat ISIS in Mosul. “I think the right idea is to not rush but to be ready to exploit a possible collapse of ISIS’s resisting capacity,” he reasoned. “This summer ISIS will come under unprecedented pressure from all fronts – in Iraq, by the Kurdish Peoples Protection Units (YPG) in Syria, and the Assad regime / Russians in Syria, and the Turkish-backed opposition on the border.”
“ISIS control of Mosul may start to look shaky, especially after we isolate the city from the west,” he continued. “So the right strategy is an early advance up the Baghdad-Mosul highway to finish the encirclement of Mosul. Then a careful, clever process of isolating ISIS from resupply and make them feel isolated within the city, surrounded by potential enemies, under attack by the population.”
“We need to ensure that when Mosul’s perimeter is probed, it is done from all sides, to spread ISIS defenders thin. That necessitates close cooperation between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). The big mission this summer should be for Baghdad and Erbil and Sulaimani to agree to open talks about Kurdistan’s independent future, and for this to help with a coordinated Mosul offensive.”
One significant area where Baghdad and the KRG have coordinated is the ongoing endeavor on the Makhmour front where the Kurdish Peshmerga permitted the Iraqis to set up forward operating positions for upcoming anti-ISIS offensives. Knights sees this coordination as something which will benefit the Kurds and compel the international community to help it alleviate the present economic crisis by providing it with financial assistance.
“I think it was expected of the Kurds that they should help liberate Mosul. The Americans and coalition needed to see Kurdish cooperation before the international community could jump in with financial assistance for Kurdistan, which will start to flow in later this year,” Knights explained.
“Kurdistan needs to keep supporting offensive operations: it cannot expect to get more help if it just holds the line. The jump-off from Makhmour serves another purpose: it places the Iraqi Army further up the Tigris than the Iranian-backed elements of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs/Hashd al-Shaabi) near Baiji. This reassures the Kurds that those Iranian-backed elements will not play a leading role in Mosul. For the Kurds there is now something worse than the Iraqi Army: it is the Iranian-backed Hashd al-Shaabi elements.”