What the Taking of Mosul Means
Victory is declared in Iraq's second city. But ISIS is undefeated, and the long war continues
Iraq's prime minister Haider al-Abadi travelled to Mosul on 10 July to announce the city's final seizure from ISIS. The campaign had begun in October, and was expected to be over by the end of the year. Instead, a gruelling military operation lasted nine months. It involved intense bombardment of the city and great loss of life, on a scale highlighted by some international NGOs and United Nations agencies.
Moreover, even as victory was being declared its limits were being revealed. Sporadic fighting continued in parts of Mosul, and ISIS was able to reinforce its control of most of Imam Gharbi, a village seventy kilometres to the south on the western bank of the Tigris. The Iraqi army may deploy units to retake the village, but the incident is a reminder that ISIS still controls many settlements across north-west Iraq.
More generally, and as recent columns in this series have discussed, ISIS is moving on from its early and distinctive emphasis on the geographical control of a distinct caliphate (see, for example, "After Mosul, what?", 21 February 2017).
Over the three years since its rapid spread in mid-2014, the movement has developed three further strategies. The first is to take the war to the “far enemy” with attacks in the United States, Belgium, France, the UK, Germany, Russia, Turkey and elsewhere. These operations demonstrate its continuing capabilities, provide a sense of revenge at the killing of tens of thousands of its supporters by the coalition’s air assaults and, above all, try to damage the internal social cohesion of the far-enemy states.
The second strategy is to encourage and aid the expansion of like-minded extreme Islamist groups elsewhere, for example in Egypt, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and the southern Philippines. The third is ISIS's transition to anti-state guerrilla warfare in Iraq and Syria (see "ISIS: the long-term prospect", 29 June 2017).
In this context the loss of Mosul, while undoubtedly a major blow, is leavened by the way that key ISIS personnel in both Mosul and Raqqa have long since dispersed across both countries. From Raqqa, significant new locations are Mayadeen and Deir al-Zour, both to the south-east of Raqqa and closer to the border with Iraq.
In Iraq itself, there are swathes of territory dotted with towns and villages, as well as districts of cities such as Baghdad, where ISIS paramilitaries can go to ground and prepare for the coming guerrilla war. In this process, the movement is aided by two consequences of Mosul's recapture. The first relates to the condition of the Iraqi army’s key special forces (including the Counter Terrorism Service and the unit known as the “golden division”). At the start of the Mosul operation, the CTS had around 10,000 troops and was regarded as the army's only completely reliable force from the Baghdad government's viewpoint.
The CTS, which was largely trained and equipped by personnel from United States special-operations command, has borne the brunt of the intense urban warfare against combat-proven ISIS paramilitaries, many of whom have been ready and willing to die for their cause. Both sides did indeed suffer as well as inflict heavy losses in the struggle for Mosul. For its part the Iraqi army is very reluctant to release casualty figures, but its special forces may have been degraded by as much as 40%.
That creates a big problem for Haider el-Abadi's government. A severely depleted CTS removes the pillar of security against ISIS in a post-Mosul Iraq. The regular army is not sufficiently well trained or equipped to do this, while the numerous unofficial Shi’a militias have acquired a reputation for violent reprisals and torture against supporters of ISIS and the many ordinary Sunni Iraqis that may be suspected of opposing the government.
The second consequence of Mosul's capture is to confirm how acutely difficult it is to subdue experienced and determined extremist paramilitaries, especially in urban environments. This is far from a new realisation: American troops had the same experience in Iraq in 2003-08, and responded with the use of multiple special-force units (including a British SAS squadron). This so-called “shadow war” focused on a group known as Task Force 145 which went mostly unreported at the time (see "Iraq war and ISIS: the connection", 29 October 2015).
The US and its allies are again adapting. There has been a step-change in their reliance on air-power in the form of helicopter-gunships, strike-aircraft and especially armed-drones. Hitherto, the intensity of their overall air war against ISIS – now approaching its fourth year and responsible for the killing of 60,000 ISIS supporters across Iraq and Syria – has hitherto been largely ignored by the western media, but is now receiving more attention (see "Mosul: a very dangerous victory", 31 March 2017).
This too is nothing new in relation to Iraq, Afghanistan and other states in conflict since 9/11, but Mosul is the clearest indicator of what is to come elsewhere (see "After Mosul: Islamic State’s Asian and African Future", Oxford Research Group, 28 June 2017). Here too the escalation of aerial and artillery bombardment is partly a response to the losses inflicted on the CTS. And the great bulk of the heavy ordnance dropped on Mosul has come from the coalition Even the French, very much the junior coalition partners, report having undertaken over 900 airstrikes on the city. But US forces operate at a far greater concentration.
The well informed Air Force Times says:
“As the battle for Mosul, Iraq, entered its final stage and the fight for Raqqa in Syria heated up, the number of weapons released by coalition aircraft against the Islamic State last month reached new records.
The coalition dropped at least 4,848 bombs as part of Operation Inherent Resolve in June, an 11 percent increase over the previous month's record of 4,374 weapons released, according to statistics posted online Monday by U.S. Air Forces Central Command.
"In the first half of 2017, the coalition released at least 23,413 weapons, putting it on track to easily eclipse the 30,743 bombs dropped in all of 2016, and the 28,696 released throughout 2015” (see Stephen Losey, "As Mosul battle neared end, anti-ISIS airstrikes reached new peak", Air Force Times, 10 July 2017).
Costs of war
In one sense all this is absolutely understandable and no-one should be surprised. If a military commander sees disabling casualties being inflicted on troops but has the firepower to counter the enemy – even if it means coming close to destroying a city in order to save it – then that is what a commander is likely to do. Furthermore, it is much easier to do this if so much of the onslaught comes from the air, especially armed-drones, and carries little risk for the attackers (see "The Zeus complex: against air war", 2 December 2016).
As if on cue, another example was reported this week, also involving an ISIS-linked group but one thousands of miles from Iraq. For two months, the Filipino armed forces have been trying to wrest control of the southern city of Marawi from extreme Islamist paramilitaries. They too have been suffering casualties and resorting to airstrikes, this time to target snipers in high-rise buildings. The Straits Times reports that the government is pursuing this tactic despite the massive damage it may cause in the city. One military officer says simply, "If we do not use air strikes, we will incur more casualties [among] our troops”.
The comment aptly summaries the emerging era of irregular war, and the direction of movement in the western military-control paradigm. “We made a desert and called it peace”, wrote Tacitus. That “desert” will continue to nourish extreme movements such as ISIS, and they too will survive and evolve.