The US might have again over-promised on the timeframe for the operation to retake Mosul, ISIS’ stronghold in Iraq.
The Sunni terrorist group has controlled the city, which is home to about 1 million people, since June 2014. It’s the most populous city under ISIS command.
Iraqi forces, backed by a US-led coalition, were expected to start the operation to retake Mosul sometime this year. A New York Times story from late January described the operation as being “months away.”
But officials are now recalibrating those estimates.
Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart, the director of the US Defence Intelligence Agency, told the Senate Armed Services Committee this week that he’s not very optimistic about the timeline of the operation.
“I think there’s lots of work to be done yet out in the western part,” Stewart said. “I don’t believe that Ramadi is completely secure, so they have to secure Ramadi.”
Ramadi was recently retaken from ISIS, but that operation relied heavily on US airpower, and most of the city was destroyed in the process. The city also needs a contingent of Iraqi Security Forces to remain there to hold it, which makes building up a force to retake Mosul even more difficult.
And Mosul is a larger city where ISIS is even more entrenched. The operation will be even more complex, on top of the challenge of avoiding civilian casualties and keeping the city intact for the million people who live there.
While US officials have emphasised that the Mosul operation will likely begin this year, Stewart tempered expectations of the operation succeeding before the year is out.
“I’m not as optimistic that we’ll be able to turn that in the near term,” he said. “In my view, certainly not this year. We might be able to begin the campaign, do some isolation operations around Mosul, but securing or taking Mosul is an extensive operation and not something I see in the next year.”
Iraqi and US forces have, however, taken some steps in the right direction, so far. US and allied forces have cut off the main route between Mosul and ISIS’ main base of operations in Raqqa, Syria, making it more difficult for ISIS to move fighters and equipment between the two strongholds. And Iraqi officials said earlier this month that the country is deploying thousands of soldiers to a northern base in preparation for the Mosul operation.
But the road ahead is still incredibly rocky, and Stewart’s testimony doesn’t indicate that Iraqi forces are yet up to the task of mounting such a huge and complicated operation in Mosul.
Since the US doesn’t have ground combat forces in Iraq anymore, the coalition relies heavily on the Iraqi Security Forces, which the US helps train and equip. But the Iraqi Security Forces and other US allies on the ground are hampered by “systemic institutional deficiencies,” Stewart testified.
“The ISF lacks sufficient logistics and military preparedness, exacerbating poor morale,” Stewart said in his testimony. “Force generation is complicated by a lack of experienced and qualified soldiers, while funding and materiel shortfalls hamper the Sunni-mobilization program.”
Sunnis are key to the fight for Mosul. The city, which is one of the largest in Iraq, is majority Sunni. And Shia militia fighters have been accused of committing atrocities against Sunni civilians as they liberate areas from ISIS (also known as the Islamic State, ISIL, or Daesh).
And as the Iraqi Security Forces fall short, the Iraqi government is expected to rely more heavily on the very same Shia militias that could make sectarian tensions in the country even worse, Stewart said. That would, in turn, play right into ISIS’ hand — the group stokes sectarian tensions to provoke violence and give credence to its claim that it’s a protector of Sunnis.
The Mosul operation is already running significantly behind schedule.
US officials have been talking about an imminent Mosul push for at least a year — Gen. Lloyd Austin, head of US Central Command, said in January of 2015 that the US and allied forces hoped the operation would start that summer. It was quickly delayed, with hopes to launch the operation in the fall instead.
A Kurdish official told The Washington Post one year later, in January of 2016, that Kurdish fighters are anxiously waiting for Iraqi forces to be ready to move in.
“We had [a] discussion to liberate Mosul last year in March … and now we’re in January 2016,” Kurdish president Masoud Barzani’s chief of staff Fuad Hussein told The Post. “So it has been delayed.”
Stewart’s comments were apparently news to the White House.
A senior administration official told The Wall Street Journal that Stewart is referencing a longer timeline than the White House has planning for.
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