Mo­sul more than cli­mac­tic mil­i­tary bat­tle

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS -

More is rid­ing on the bat­tle for Mo­sul than the re­cap­ture of the Is­lamic State group’s main strong­hold in north­ern Iraq. Also on the line is the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s the­ory that the ex­trem­ists can be de­feated in Iraq, Syria and else­where with­out Amer­i­can ground troops do­ing the fight­ing. For more than two years, the ad­min­is­tra­tion has stuck to its ar­gu­ment that the only path to a sus­tained vic­tory over the Is­lamic State group is for lo­cals, not Amer­i­cans or other out­siders, to bear the main re­spon­si­bil­ity for the fight­ing and for gov­ern­ing after the ex­trem­ists are re­moved.

Pres­i­dent Barack Obama has taken a lot of po­lit­i­cal heat for that ap­proach, which crit­ics say has al­lowed IS to ex­pand its in­ter­na­tional reach and in­flu­ence. The vi­a­bil­ity of Obama’s strat­egy has been widely doubted. In May 2015, after months of US bomb­ings in Iraq and while in the midst of Amer­i­cans train­ing and ad­vis­ing Iraqi ground troops, the Iraqis lost the city of Ra­madi. De­fense Sec­re­tary Ash Carter pub­licly said he doubted the Iraqis’ will to fight. Since then, the US sup­port role has grown and the Iraqi se­cu­rity forces have man­aged to re­take key parts of western and north­ern Iraq, in­clud­ing Ra­madi.

Mo­sul is dif­fer­ent, not least be­cause it is the place where Is­lamic State lead­ers in 2014 an­nounced their in­tent to cre­ate an Is­lamic-run state after tak­ing a large swath of Iraq and Syria in a light­ning surge. White House press sec­re­tary Josh Earnest on Mon­day called Mo­sul a new mea­sure of Obama’s strat­egy. “And I think the pres­i­dent would be the first to ac­knowl­edge that this is a sig­nif­i­cant test,” he said, given the size of the city and its im­por­tance to IS. “Dis­lodg­ing them from the city would be a sig­nif­i­cant strate­gic gain,” Earnest said.

US air­power played a key role in the run-up to the fight for Mo­sul by tak­ing out Is­lamic State de­fenses, cash re­sources, sup­ply routes and some of the group’s lead­ers. The US is now pro­vid­ing air cover as Iraqi se­cu­rity forces and mem­bers of the Kur­dish mili­tia be­gin their at­tempt to re­take the city over the next sev­eral weeks. Amer­i­can ad­vis­ers are work­ing with Iraqi troops, but the out­come will be de­ter­mined largely by the Iraqis.

Mo­sul may an­swer the ques­tion: If IS loses a crown jewel of its so-called caliphate, will that be a de­ci­sive and sus­tain­able vic­tory for Iraq? Or will Bagh­dad once again fal­ter, al­low­ing sec­tar­ian and po­lit­i­cal di­vi­sions to desta­bi­lize the coun­try and per­mit a re­turn of ex­trem­ists? That likely won’t be known be­fore Obama’s suc­ces­sor takes of­fice. The next pres­i­dent also will in­herit the broader prob­lem of Syria not just the IS pres­ence there, in­clud­ing in its self-pro­claimed cap­i­tal of Raqqa, but also the civil war with its com­pli­ca­tions in­volv­ing Rus­sia, Iran and Turkey.

Iraq re­mains deeply di­vided, and the griev­ances among the coun­try’s Sunni, Shi­ite and Kur­dish pop­u­la­tions that al­lowed IS to rise to power in the first place have not been re­solved. Even if the Mo­sul campaign is suc­cess­ful mil­i­tar­ily, there is a risk of vi­o­lence erupt­ing again in the form of re­venge killings or clashes be­tween groups once al­lied against a com­mon en­emy.

Af­ter­math

Seth Jones, a de­fense and se­cu­rity ex­pert at the RAND Corp, says the com­bat phase of the bat­tle for Mo­sul, while dif­fi­cult, will be “much eas­ier” than the af­ter­math. “I think there’s a strong pos­si­bil­ity that a lot of the po­lit­i­cal griev­ances ac­tu­ally get ac­cen­tu­ated,” he said in an in­ter­view Fri­day. David Pe­traeus, the for­mer Army gen­eral who com­manded US and coali­tion forces in Iraq in 2007-08, calls the Obama ap­proach in Iraq and Syria “a new way of fight­ing”. “It’s much more sus­tain­able in terms of blood and trea­sure than ob­vi­ously hav­ing our forces have to do it,” Pe­traeus, who also served as Obama’s CIA direc­tor, said Sun­day on ABC’s “This Week.”

Obama be­gan send­ing small num­bers of US mil­i­tary ad­vis­ers to Iraq in the sum­mer of 2014, after the Is­lamic State had swept into Mo­sul and also cap­tured much of western Iraq, in­clud­ing cities like Ra­madi and Fal­lu­jah where Amer­i­can ground troops had spilled much blood be­fore all US troops left Iraq in 2011. The rise of IS in Iraq was a sting­ing blow to Obama, whom crit­ics ac­cused of giving up hard-fought gains.

He ini­tially in­sisted there would be no US “boots on the ground,” but he au­tho­rized a grad­ual ex­pan­sion of the US train­ing and ad­vis­ing ef­fort to com­ple­ment a USled coali­tion air campaign. He was sup­ported in his cau­tious, go-slow ap­proach by his top mil­i­tary ad­viser at the time, Gen. Martin Dempsey, who was chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff when IS moved into Iraq and when Obama be­gan re­turn­ing US ad­vis­ers to Bagh­dad. Dempsey coun­selled pa­tience. Give the Iraqis time to heal their in­ter­nal di­vi­sions and fight their own bat­tles, he ar­gued. Re­sist the temp­ta­tion to grab con­trol of the con­test against the Is­lamic State. Dempsey be­lieved an en­dur­ing vic­tory would re­quire a uni­fied Iraq sup­ported by neigh­bors.

“If we were to take con­trol of this campaign, I mean lit­er­ally seize con­trol of the campaign, then there’s no doubt in my mind we would prob­a­bly de­feat ISIL on, let’s say, a faster time­line,” but it would not last, he said in June 2015. “Maybe ISIL goes away, maybe they’re de­feated mil­i­tar­ily, and two years from now an­other group with an­other name and an­other ide­ol­ogy ... will just be back,” he said. In the Obama view, Iraq is more likely to re­gain, and re­tain, con­trol of its ter­ri­tory if it is not re­ly­ing on US troops to do the fight­ing. Mo­sul is the big­gest test of that the­ory. — AP

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