Make no sudden moves seems to be an imperative of the current administration’s policy toward Iraq. Big announcements, like the one this week that 450 additional troops will be sent to assist the Iraqi army as advisors, turn out to mean less than the initial press release suggests. Only 50 of those soldiers are actually advisors, the remaining 400 are a security detail. But while the U.S. appears to be managing expectations and hunkering down for a long war marked by setbacks and slow progress, Iraqi leaders may have other plans in mind.
The Iraqi general leading the operation to retake Mosul, the Islamic State’s de facto capital in northern Iraq, told The Daily Beast exclusively this week that the offensive will be launched sooner than expected and definitely in less than a year.
The date to begin the operation, “may be very close but I can’t tell you when exactly,” said Major General Najim Abed al-Jubouri, commander of the Nineveh operations center, named for the Iraqi province that governs Mosul. We were speaking on June 10, exactly one year after ISIS captured Mosul. When I asked whether the campaign in Mosul would begin in the next year, the general laughed and I expected to hear something about the virtues of patience. Instead he said, “No, no, no. Before that.”
According to Najim, Iraqi forces are already being repositioned around Mosul in preparation for the upcoming offensive. Only a few days before we spoke, the general said, “the prime minister gave us orders to move troops around Mosul.” Launching the operation in Mosul will not wait for Iraqi forces to win clear victories in other embattled areas like Baiji and Anbar, Najim said. “We will not wait. We have our troops, we will move to Mosul.”
The troops under Najim’s command will include “three Iraqi divisions, some battalions, many fighters from the [Sunni] tribes, and maybe some for the [Iraqi Special Forces] Golden Division,” he said. According to Najim, two of the units participating, the 15th and 16th divisions of the Iraqi army, received training from American forces, as did some of the tribal fighters from Nineveh. In total, Najim says, he will have “maybe more than 30,000” soldiers and tribesman fighting to retake Mosul.
That is, frankly, hard to believe given how thin Iraqi forces are already stretched by ongoing battles in other areas like Baiji and Anbar. And the general’s count doesn’t match with what Derek Harvey, a former Army colonel and senior intelligence official who advised General David Petraeus as an Iraq specialist, observed during a recent trip to Iraq. According to Harvey, “the assertion that the 15th division has the capability, I don’t really believe it. I looked at them 4 months ago. They hardly existed.”
Harvey also said he sees no evidence of the preparatory actions that would indicate a major operation in Mosul. “There is no indication that the air campaign, special operations or the Kurds are doing the things” he would expect to see in advance of a ground force.
Reached for comment, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, which is in charge of military operations in Iraq, said, “Were not going to talk about future operations.” The spokesman added, “You have to understand that the operations throughout Iraq are led by the Iraqis, support is requested.”
Harvey’s skepticism gets at a larger point about the limits of manpower available in Iraq, specifically when it comes to retaking the Sunni areas that are ISIS strongholds.
In Mosul, even Sunni who loathe ISIS are hostile to the Shia militias that have become Baghdad’s de facto military. “Every prisoner in this oppressed city wants salvation from [ISIS],” a Mosul resident told the Wall Street Journal recently. “But everyone agrees if liberation happens like in Tikrit and Anbar, with destruction and barrel bombs, random shelling and looting, we do not want that kind of liberation.”
There are no credible reports of barrel bombs being used by Iraq’s Shia militias or its military, though looting and sectarian violence have been documented. Fear of these groups is powerful and no doubt amplified by ISIS’ own propaganda. Not that the militias, which are largely based out the Shia heartland in southern and central Iraq, are eager to liberate Mosul, a city far from their base of support, and whose Sunnis residents many view as ISIS collaborators. Similarly, Kurdish forces, though closer to Mosul, are not much more enthusiastic than the militias about shedding blood for areas outside their homeland.
Mosul also seems to be out of line with Baghdad’s strategic priorities, increasingly guided by Iran, which exerts significant influence in Baghdad and prioritizes defending the capital while accepting only limited risks in counter-offensives launched in Sunni regions. “I don’t think Mosul fits in to Iran’s strategic priorities at all,” said Jim Dubik a retired army general who oversaw the training of Iraqi security forces in 2007 and is now a senior fellow at the Institute for the Study of War. Iran’s attitude towards Mosul, according to Dubik: “ I think they’d be fine to see it fester.”
The fact that a near term Mosul offensive seems totally out of line with U.S. plans, counter to Iranian priorities, and dangerously impractical, doesn’t mean it can’t happen. “The Iraqis can make a decision to launch it any time they want,” Dubik said. There’s a precedent for Iraqi leaders upsetting the plans and expectations of their foreign counterparts, Dubik said, pointing to a 2008 military operation in the southern city of Basra that caught American planners by surprise.
As U.S. generals and policy makers made the rounds discussing Iraq policy this week, there was, notably, no mention of any plan to clear the Islamic State, also called ISIS, from its headquarters in Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. As recently as late February, Pentagon officials were touting a campaign to retake Mosul in a matter of months but those plans, which never accorded with Baghdad’s priorities, were tabled after ISIS seized the Western city of Ramadi in May. Mosul went from being a near-term target to defeat the group in Iraq (to say nothing of its base in Syria) to a distant objective, not worth seriously considering while Iraqi forces were losing ground in areas on Baghdad’s doorstep.
Despite Najim’s assurances, the only feasible ground forces on hand to retake Mosul include a still decimated Iraqi military and the yet to be trained and organized Sunni tribesman. Those two groups are exactly who is being targeted by U.S. led training efforts. But with little to show for those efforts so far, there is no reason to expect that an additional 50 trainers will be able to stand up a Sunni tribal force or integrated military capable of retaking Mosul any time soon. Not that it’s clear the U.S. is eager to rush things in Iraq.
In an interview with CBS this week, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno, formerly the top U.S. commander in Iraq, downplayed the U.S. role in Iraq and stressed that the defeating ISIS could only come from changes made by Iraq’s political leaders.
“Do Shia fighters want to fight in the Sunni part of Iraq?” Odierno asked. “I don’t know. And so what we need is a totally integrated army of Sunni, Shia and Kurdish fighters that are there for Iraq and are willing to fight for Iraq. Once that’s done, we can train them and we can help them, but until they are able to put together an army that represents everybody, it think it’s going to be a struggle.”
Dubik shares Odierno’s view that Iraq can’t achieve significant military victories while it struggles with political reconciliation. “When I look like at the force structure they actually have and their problems with money,” Dubik said, “I see much more of a stalemate in the near term than a large counter-offensive.”
Why would Najim say the Mosul operation is starting soon if that’s not true? Maybe that’s what he believes or has been told to say by the bosses he answers to. Maybe it is true and will be undertaken for reasons that aren’t yet clear, despite how ill prepared the Iraqi forces appear to be for what would be the largest and deadliest battle yet in the war against ISIS. Or, maybe—and this is assuming he’s saying the same thing an audience in Iraq—he’s trying to build confidence in what he knows to be a demoralized force. Najim is a professional soldier, but for others like him whose families come from the areas now under ISIS control, it may be too dispiriting to accept that nothing will happen soon. And what’s bad for morale is bad for recruiting.