The Iraqi conundrum, retaking Mosul, II
This week sources from both the U.S. and our allies in Iraq released information to the effect that “we” would retake Mosul sometime in April or May. Who the “we” are is the million dollar question. Certainly such an effort to retake the largest city that ISIS had taken would be an enormous victory. And equally certain is that a larger U.S.presence in the fighting, or should I say “advising,” will be necessary. But administration sources still are hanging on to the line of “no U.S. boots on the ground in combat situations.” Then the “we” in this military action must rely on indigenous Iraqi forces, namely the Iraqi national army, made up of mostly Shia, the various non-ISIS Sunni Tribal forces, and the Kurdish Pesh Merga fighters. Now since the majority of Mosul’s population is Sunni, and presumably most of the ranks non-Sunni locals who might be capable of significantly helping us retake Mosul have been systematically eliminated or marginalized by ISIS, we face one of the many conundrums inherent in what is largely a sectarian war. In the main, only the Sunni tribal forces will be welcomed by the residents of Mosul, yet we still send our arms through the national government, who are loathe to share them with Sunni fighters. The Kurdish Pesh Merga fighters are already hinting at a peripheral role in blocking the western and southwestern roads into and out of Mosul. The national forces (Shia) are the ones, recall, who held Mosul–we had thought invulnerably–ran when faced with a much smaller, but fiercer, ISIS force—leaving behind a large cache of U.S. supplied weapons that ISIS proudly showed off to the world. Now I know supporters of a plan to rely on mostly Shia fighters will argue that we have since intensively trained the (Shia) national army. But I can’t help recall hearing the same argument before withdrawing most of our troops in 2011.
The U.S.’ strategy in warfare, ever since the Vietnam disaster, has been one of meeting the enemy with “overwhelming force.” (This doesn’t make for sizable quick-lightening responses, as is required in the modern conflict with smaller para-military terrorist groups, but that is a different argument best saved for later). I’d guess that in the case of Mosul, this would mean somewhere between 25,000-50,000 Iraqi national forces. It is reported that ISIS currently has about 2,000 fighters in Mosul, so they likely would have to augment those numbers by April or May, or plan to withdraw altogether. And the latter possibility might be the reason behind the extremely unorthodox procedure of announcing our plans in advance-it also might be a head fake altogether, i.e. to take their eyes off of an allied action elsewhere than Mosul.
Given the history of Iraq’s Shia military, including recent ISIS takeovers elsewhere in Iraq, and the demographics of Mosul’s population, I would still expect that front line fighting would have to rely on Sunni tribal forces. So we had best size-up which tribes are likely to remain firmly committed to the fight against ISIS and start routing weapons through them. The “overwhelming force” of Shias can still be useful in the tedious efforts to reclaim the city block by block, against hopefully retreating ISIS remnants. This will be necessary if we aren’t to destroy Mosul in the process of freeing it.
Meanwhile, extra efforts to get the Shia dominated government to finally share both power and oil revenues with friendly Sunni tribes are essential. Those Sunni tribes who remain loyal to fighting ISIS are well aware of what will likely happen to them should ISIS win. According to the Quran, following his arrival at Medina, Mohammed made a pact: “No believer will kill another believer because of an unbeliever, and no believer will aide an unbeliever against another believer.” Later he made it more explicit in proclaiming that no Moslem should ever aid a Christian or a Jew against another Moslem.