Where officials once hoped to launch the campaign to reclaim the city of Mosul by the end of year, officials believe a year from now is “optimistic,” as one defense official explained.
It’s the latest adjustment to the keystone battle against ISIS, one that has been plagued by U.S. miscalculations about the abilities of the Iraqi security forces. And the pushed backed timeline reinforces a growing belief that for all the U.S. training of Iraqi forces, local ground forces cannot reclaim the city on their own.
Just two months ago, President Obama said on Charlie Rose, “My expectation is, is that by the end of the year, we will have created the conditions whereby Mosul will eventually fall.” That no longer appears to be the case. Last month, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter told Capitol Hill that the Iraqi forces would be in a position to envelope Mosul by next month. As it turns out, all the troops needed to surround Mosul won’t even finish their training by then.
The closer the march toward Mosul comes, the harder it looks to actually accomplish, a campaign that the U.S. military once said could happen as early as March 2015. In recent months, a number of factors—military, political, and practical—are slowing down the timeline, the officials explained to The Daily Beast.
The Iraqi forces still need to improve their logistics, like maintaining their equipment and weapons and moving troops. They need to train more troops and their Special Forces need rest after reclaiming the cities of Ramadi, Hit, and Tikrit, the defense officials explained.
“They don’t have the forces right now,” one defense official explained. “It’s not going to happen. They cannot sustain it.”
Currently, Iraqi forces about are about 50 miles south of Mosul and 20 miles north. Their goal is to eventually retake smaller cities around Mosul that are under ISIS control and eventually isolate the ISIS Iraqi capital. Indeed, a U.S. service member, Marine Staff Sgt. Louis Cardin, died helping Iraqi forces move a few kilometers north toward Mosul.
Meanwhile, ISIS has set up a series of berms and explosive protections around the city, which at its peak was home to 2 million people. After all, ISIS has had more than a year’s notice of the impending campaign.
Politically, the Iraqis have yet to determine how to govern Mosul “the day after it falls,” as one official explained. Kurdish Peshmerga forces will be key in the liberation of Mosul, which famously fell into ISIS hands June 10, 2014, after Iraqi forces took off their uniforms and fled. What role will the Kurds have in Mosul when it is no longer under ISIS control? And how much of the city will remain under the central government’s control?
More important, Iraqi Prime Haider al Abadi’s grip on the country is precarious as Shiite leader Muqtada al Sadr has called for protests against Abadi.
Some Iraqi government officials are pushing for the liberation of the central Iraqi city of Fallujah before Mosul. Fallujah is a Sunni-dominated city, and the mostly Shiite government suspects that that restive city is home to ISIS fighters threatening security in the capital. Such arguments were only bolstered this week after suicide bombers attacked three parts of the capital Wednesday, killing more than 100 people in the deadliest attack in months.
On Thursday, twin bombings struck western Baghdad, killing at least five police officers.
The calendar presents additional challenges to the Mosul campaign. Iraq already is bracing for additional attacks as Muslims mark the holy month of Ramadan starting the first week of June. In the past, ISIS has often chosen to mark Ramadan by launching spectacular attacks across the world. Such forbidding expectations of ISIS will likely keep the Iraqi security preoccupied with securing currently held territory, rather than claiming new land.
The Iraqis have vowed to fight through Ramadan, defense officials said.
And from July until October, Iraq will likely be too hot to launch the kind of sustained campaign needed to reclaim Mosul, as temperatures will easily reach 120 F. At best, U.S. officials believe Iraqi forces will move forward a few towns between now and October, one defense official explained.
U.S. officials are pushing the Iraqis to resolve the problems that have kept the campaign against Mosul from progressing, particularly during the inevitable summer lull.
“They can use that time to their advantage, and that is what we are pushing for,” a second defense official explained.
The U.S. rhetoric about the campaign for Mosul is much like what happened in the run-up to the fight to take back the central city of Ramadi from ISIS. For months, the U.S. military said the fight for Ramadi was imminent, only to push the date back. When the campaign began last fall, it took five months to claim the city, which is only a fifth of the size of Mosul. Iraqi Special Forces led that campaign, while Iraqis only agreed to go in with the help of a heavy U.S. air campaign.
Between the explosives left by ISIS and air assault, Ramadi was all but destroyed when ISIS finally fled.
Ramadi’s fall was a huge boost for the Iraqi forces, even as a shell of a city. Some had hoped it would lead to a quicker Mosul campaign. But while some fear pushing Mosul further back slows much needed momentum against ISIS, U.S. officials believe it is better to wait. Mosul is bigger and heavily entrenched by ISIS, making its liberation far harder.
“Yes, momentum will be lost but that is not a showstopper,” the second defense official explained. “The important thing is that the enemy cannot be allowed to regain momentum.”