Why Did Anyone Think Mosul Could Be a Cakewalk?

Obama hoped for a quick victory in Mosul. He really should not have

The veteran Middle East report Patrick Cockburn has an update on the fighting in Mosul:

The Iraqi armed forces are becoming bogged down in the battle for Mosul. Its elite special forces and an armoured division are fighting to hold districts in the eastern outskirts of the city against counter-attacks by Isis fighters using networks of tunnels to move about unseen.

“In one day we lost 37 dead and 70 wounded,” said a former senior Iraqi official, adding that the Iraqi forces had been caught by surprise by the extent of the tunnel system built by Isis, said to be 45 miles long.

The Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) and the Ninth Armoured Division have been trying for two weeks to fight their way into that part of Mosul city, east of the Tigris River.

Isis is sending waves of suicide bombers either as individuals who blow themselves up or in vehicles packed with explosives, snipers and mortar teams, to restart the fighting in a dozen districts that the Iraqi Army had said were already captured.

“At first I was optimistic that we might capture Mosul in two or three weeks, but I now believe it will take months,” said Khasro Goran, a senior Kurdish leader familiar with conditions in Mosul, in an exclusive interview with The Independent.

He said he had changed his mind about the likely length of the siege when he witnessed the ferocity of the fighting in the outer defences of Mosul. He added that “if they [Isis] continue fighting like this then a lot of Mosul will be destroyed. I hope it will not be like Aleppo.”

Basically it’s a slow slog against an enemy that is outnumbered and outgunned, but also tenacious and skilled. In other words it’s exactly the kind of fight that may have been expected.

Before Mosul battle was launched there was talk that ISIS might not even defend the city in force — just like it had pulled back majority of its fighters from Falluja and Ramadi before the US-Iraqi offensives to retake these cities.

This always sounded like wishful thinking to me. Mosul is by far the most important city in ISIS-stan and its only real metropolis. It’s the city whose capture in 2014 shocked the world and put the group on the map.

Retreating from secondary cities is one thing, but if the purpose isn’t to save strength to defend your most important possession then what’s the point?

Moreover the tactical situation will nowhere be better for the Caliphate. Mosul is a large built up area — essentially a fortress for the defender — with around one million civilians for extra cover. Why in the world would ISIS abandon a position like that for the desert or small provincial cities like Raqqa?

Besides, Falluja from where ISIS had mostly retreated before the Iraqi-American onslaught still took over a month to clear. Ramadi took over two months, and Manbij in Syria took over three months for Syrian Kurds and US special forces to capture.

Why would anyone expect a much more complex and larger operation against ISIS would take less?

And yet hope (if not expect) they did:

The Washington Times:

Obama hoping for quick Mosul victory to validate Islamic State strategy, boost Clinton

Financial Times:

The launch of the battle for Mosul presents the Obama administration with the tantalising prospect of a crushing defeat of Isis in Iraq before it leaves office.

Associated Press:

Obama, Iraqi leader vow rapid offensive to retake Mosul

To be fair to Obama he did not play up expectations of a quick win in public. He even warned it would be ‘a difficult fight’ and ‘likely setbacks’.

But the very fact the offensive was left for Obama’s last few months betrays he harbored a hope it could be wrapped up on his watch. Iraqi PM revealed as much:

“We hope within the next few months we’re going to kick Daesh out of Mosul,” Abadi said, using an Arabic acronym for the group. He added: “They must be crushed on the ground.”