Since announced to great fanfare in October the offensive on Mosul has been advancing at a snail’s pace. That is despite the fact that the assembled anti-ISIS coalition is vastly stronger than ISIS, and that nobody doubts the Caliphate will eventually be ejected from Iraq’s third city. So what then explains the pace of the advance which is now being likened to a stalemate?
There is ISIS’ tenacity and fighting prowess which were never in doubt. The network of fortifications and underground tunnels the groups has prepared in anticipation of the showdown for Mosul also makes a huge difference. Another complication is the city is full of civilians since Baghdad balked at instructing them to evacuate the battlefield once it learned what it would cost to house the refugees.
Nonetheless the most fundamental reason for the near-stalemate is that the anti-ISIS coalition, albeit strong on paper, is composed of distinct components each of which would prefer the others to do most of the fighting and dying necessary.
First there is the Peshmerga army of the Kurdistan Regional Government. Kurds have no interest whatsoever in participating in costly urban fighting in Mosul streets. By now they control all the parts of Iraq they are interested in and are happy to sit on that.
They have slowly advanced to within 20 kilometres of Mosul but this was before the present offensive was even started. The Kurdish role this time around has been limited to allowing the Iraqi army to traverse territory held by Peshmerga which allowed it to advance onto Mosul from the north and the east, as well as from the south.
Next are the Americans. There are some 6,000 US troops (and 21 US generals) in Iraq supporting the Mosul offensive but only in the roles which do not require a lot of dying. US has been happy to help with intelligence and logistics, to pound ISIS from the air and with long-range artillery, but aside from some Special Forces soldiers US is not willing to put its troops in harm’s way either.
The next big component of the coalition are the Iraqi militias, largely Shia and Iranian-backed. These outfits may or may not be spoiling for a deadly fight with ISIS in Mosul’s streets, but according to American wishes they have been ordered by Baghdad not to enter Mosul, and have therefore advanced into the desert to the west of Mosul instead.
So that leaves the last big part of the coalition, the Iraqi army and police, holding the bag. But understandably in a situation where so many agree that ISIS must be defeated they are not necessarily jumping for joy that they have been selected to do all the dying necessary to accomplish it.
Think about it, if you’re an Iraqi and you like to fight you probably join one of the many available militias. If you join the state security services instead it’s probably because one it is few of the jobs available.
Next as an Iraqi soldier you are most likely to be a Shia from the south. Freeing Sunni Mosul from Sunni radicals in the north of the country and on the doorstep of the Kurdish region is not necessarily something you are eager to die for.
Moreover numerous Iraqis believe that ISIS is an American creation. Of course they are right in the sense that without America fanning the flames of Syria’s civil war ISIS would have never in a million years been able to carve out a state for itself in Iraq. However many Iraqis take that further. They are convinced US deliberately grew ISIS and supplied it directly at least until very recently.
It is not a leap of faith to assume Iraqis who think Americans created ISIS also think it should be Americans who die to defeat it.
Now you may think it is scandalous that the rank and file of Iraqi security forces do not really feel it is their job to restore the sovereignty of Iraq, but we are talking here about forces founded under foreign occupation of their country.
Why should a force founded and trained by foreign troops lording over their country feel there is any great urgency to restoring the Iraqi state? Surely had they felt so they should have risen in revolt against the very power which had reconstituted them.
Yes, Iraqi army just like the Iraqi state itself is a relatively hollow force. — Thanks in the main part to the anti-Iraqi policies of the US over the past twenty-six years.
Actually Iraqi army has suffered considerable casualties in Mosul. According to UN reports 2,000 killed in November alone. However, high unit casualties and feet dragging by the rank and file are in no way incompatible.
To the contrary, a force whose fighters suffer from low morale, show a lack of elan and enthusiasm, are tardy in maneuver and quick to break will generally suffer far higher casualty rates than a force whose rank and file is zealous in its soldiering.
Incidentally the top US commander in Iraq has recently praised the fighting prowess and the discipline of the Iraqi militias. The very same formations Americans were previously saying if allowed into Mosul city were liable to massacre Sunni civilians:
— Hayder al-Khoei (@Hayder_alKhoei) December 26, 2016
Are Americans preparing the ground for inviting the Iranian-backed Shia militias to share in the dying in the mean streets of Mosul? Why not, after all just like the other parts of the coalition they believe anyone but them should do most of the fighting and dying necessary.