Some U.S. officers in Baghdad believe the Obama administration is rushing plans for a Mosul offensive so it takes place before the November presidential election, a retired general says.
Retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael D. Barbero said his contacts in Baghdad have relayed the concerns to him, fearing there is now an “artificial timeline” for what promises to be by far the toughest battle in the war against the Islamic State in Iraq.
Iraqi Security Forces, which has made strides since the U.S.-led coalition began retraining its troops, may not be sufficiently prepared for a rushed operation. The troops face the monumental task of capturing a city of almost 2 million citizens and up to 10,000 Islamic State fighters and their booby traps.
“There is tremendous concern that Washington is going to press for a Mosul operation to commence before the November election,” Mr. Barbero told The Washington Times. “The concern is, will the conditions be set on the ground by then, and I don’t think so.”
Asked about the view that the White House is pushing an early offensive, Mr. Barbero answered, “Yeah. I’m hearing that from Baghdad.”
“If you look at the track record, that is not unbelievable,” he said. “It’s an artificial timeline, especially before the election.”
Added Mr. Barbero, who commanded troops in the Persian Gulf War: “We all know the conditions for this. This is going to be a different fight. They are going to fight to the death in Mosul, and we have got to make sure that the conditions are set so we can destroy them.”
An offensive less than four months from now would help Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton dispute Republican charges that the Obama administration is letting the Islamic State run a global terrorism operation. Some Republicans argue that more American boots should on the ground for the fight.
The administration and Iraqi leaders want the offensive completed, or nearly so, before Mr. Obama leaves office in January, which would allow him to claim U.S. victory in the second war for Iraq.
The top U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad said the command is trying to accelerate the timeline for military, not political, reasons.
“I am not aware of any influence like that on the timeline for Mosul operations. We are supporting the Iraqi Security Forces and their timeline,” Army Col. Christopher Garver told The Times. “We will do what we can to help the Iraqis make that happen.”
He noted that Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has said he wants Mosul liberated by year’s end.
An enemy on the ropes
The U.S.-led Operation Inherent Resolve has three main pillars: train and advise the Iraqi Security Forces, supply weapons, and conduct airstrikes and surveillance.
Col. Garver said Army Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland, the in-country commander, wants to accelerate the timeline to increase pressure on an enemy that has lost territory. The Islamic State retreated from three major towns in Iraq — Tikrit, Ramadi and Fallujah — as well as from territory close to Raqqa, its so-called capital in Syria.
“When you have an opponent on the ropes, you don’t let him off the ropes; you press the attack,” he said. “This prevents the enemy from reconstituting his force and rebuilding combat power. We believe we — the coalition and the Iraqi Security Forces — have the initiative and are gaining momentum. To keep that momentum moving in our favor, we will do what we can to accelerate the campaign.”
At a coalition war planning session last week at Joint Base Andrews outside Washington, the overall war commander, Army Gen. Joseph Votel, expressed caution about a quick Mosul schedule.
“I think one of the key things we took out of the meeting this morning was, with respect to Mosul, was we shouldn’t underestimate the amount of preparation necessary to take on an operation like that,” said Gen. Votel, who runs U.S. Central Command.
“It’s a big city — 2 million people, large geographic area — so we want to make sure we’re well-prepared. So, things like force generation, making sure we’ve got the right stabilization plan in place, and we’ve got the right political aspects in place here to help manage that city after the fight has gone, I think are important aspects.”
Iraqi forces in the south — a mix of regular army, special operations, Sunni tribes and Shiite militias — are putting a ring around Iraq’s second-largest city to choke off supplies. The coalition is counting on the semi-autonomous Kurdish northern region to close the ring by sending in peshmerga fighters from the north.
The the Sunni-Shiite-Kurdish coalition matches Mosul’s hodgepodge of tribal, religious and ethnic diversity. They have lived under the Islamic State’s harsh rule since Iraqi government forces fled en masse in 2014.
‘Center of gravity’
The allies took a significant step this month by reclaiming an air base at Qayyarah, 40 miles south of Mosul. Mr. Obama approved a deployment of 560 troops, many of whom will work to turn the war prize into a functioning air base from which troops and strike aircraft can make quick thrust in and around the city.
Retired Army Maj. Gen. Robert H. Scales said the Iraqis will be attempting to conduct the complexity of a huge land battle requiring the ability to stage, maneuver and resupply.
“Realize the distances were talking about — hundreds of kilometers,” Mr. Scales said. “That is not something they’re good at.”
Mr. Scales, a highly decorated Vietnam War veteran, said Iraq will need a force of about 50,000, far more than used in previous urban battles and a number that will stretch the Iraqi Security Forces and associated fighters to their limits.
“Unlike Raqqa, Mosul can’t be easily cordoned off and isolated from the outside,” he said. “It’s in the open, spread over a huge area with no natural hills, waterways or walled suburbs to provide a natural line for an advancing force.”
“The attacker will need copious amounts of very heavy firepower — 1,000- and 2,000-pound bombs,” he said. “It will have to be methodical, and the Iraqis will be under pressure to kill ISIS and not kill the innocents.”
Mr. Scales endorses a campaign beginning before November to avoid northern Iraq’s rainy season.
“If mechanized forces are needed, and they will be, then entry has to be done soonest,” he said.
Two developments favor the coalition, he said. Iraq’s special operations forces, honed by U.S. trainers, have grown much better at street fighting.
And perhaps losing Ramadi and Fallujah has shaken the Islamic State’s feeling of invincibility.
“But remember, Mosul is their strategic, moral and psychological center of gravity,” Mr. Scales said. “They will fight for it.”