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Why the U.S. Will Fail by Winning in Mosul (and Tikrit)

The United States will most likely suffer defeat in Mosul, even if it “wins” against IS. And you can pretty much substitute “Tikrit” in the story below anywhere you see “Mosul.”

The reasons will be much the same as those that caused the defeat of American strategy in Iraq War 2.0: a failure to force reconciliation among the Iraqi Shia, Sunni and Kurds.

Some History of Mosul

A little history, repeating itself. In April 2003, an entire Iraqi Army Corps in Mosul surrendered to a small U.S. Special Forces group. The city fell into disorder, with the Central Bank plundered and the university library pillaged. Sound familiar? Chaos ensued as Kurds fought both Sunni and Shia Arabs. The Sunnis, tribally dominant in the area, fought hard against the rise of Shia power emanating from the new government in Baghdad.

During the occupation by the U.S. 101st Airborne Division in 2003, a 21,000-strong force under General David Petraeus pushed the Kurdish militias largely out of Mosul and created an uneasy peace with the Sunni tribes (Petraeus would revisit the idea as part of the Anbar Awakening.) Via his own military muscle and the skillful use of American reconstruction money, Petraeus tried to foster a governing structure that integrated Kurdish parties without alienating Sunni Arab constituencies. After Petraeus left, and as the war worn on and Kurdish influence began to exert itself in Mosul, the Sunnis turned to Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI; the precursor to IS) for support. Multi-sided fighting continued in Mosul, as the fundamental issue of which group truly controlled the city — as it was for Iraq as a whole — was left unresolved as the U.S. pulled out in 2011.

Assault on Mosul

The 2015 American ambitions to retake Mosul have made it to the front pages. Significant quantities of U.S. weapons are flowing into Iraq in anticipation of a large-scale assault.

Sometime this year (maybe in the autumn or later) the U.S. hopes to organize 25,000 Iraqi troops, 12 full brigades, at least five of which have not even begun training yet, for the assault. Three Kurdish brigades will also join the attack, as well as an unspecified number of non-government Shia militias aided by whatever Iranian assets may be supporting them (now acknowledged to include elements of Hezbollah.) U.S. officials say there would also be Sunni force of former Mosul police and tribesmen who would enter the city once the Islamic State fighters are cleared out.

Boots on the Ground

U.S. forces on the ground will almost certainly be required to coordinate the many disparate elements on the “Iraq” side, as well as to call in close air support. Secretary of State John Kerry initiated the process of walking back the president’s pledge about no boots on the ground, speaking to the Senate Appropriations Committee in support of Obama’s request for authorization for use of military force against IS. Kerry said American soldiers embedded with Iraqi troops would not be in violation of the ban on enduring ground offensive operations. “If you’re going in for weeks and weeks of combat, that’s enduring. If you’re going in to assist somebody and [do] fire control and you’re embedded in an overnight deal, or you’re in a rescue operation or whatever, that is not enduring.”

Assuming the logistics of moving 25,000 troops across the desert, as well as training, equipping, and sustaining them with food and water (difficult, and fully impossible without direct U.S. assistance and cargo flights) can be solved, the real questions about the upcoming Battle of Mosul are twofold.

The Key Questions

The tactical question. Will it become necessary to destroy Mosul in order to save it. Look at the victory in Kobane over ISIS. By all accounts, the over 700 airstrikes the U.S. conducted on a round-the-clock basis on Kobane devastated the town. The civilian death toll has never been calculated. No plans to rebuild the city have been announced. It is unclear what entity governs the remains. Some 230,000 refugees have fled. Photos of the place make it look like Stalingrad. As an activist in the ISIS capital of Raqqa wrote, “People don’t look at Kobani and see a defeat, because everyone had to leave and the Americans bombed it to rubble to win.”

The greater strategic question. Who will control whatever is left of Mosul after IS is driven out? The American command and control efforts, plus American air power, needed to ensure the physical destruction of IS will be welcomed by all sides, as they are in greater Iraq. Less clear will be the reaction to follow-on U.S. demands that some of the victorious forces withdraw in favor of the others. The Sunnis controlled Mosul before 2003, and contested the space with the Kurds after that. The Baghdad Shia government then forfeited its claim to the city when the Iraqi Army cut and ran in 2014. It seems highly unlikely that the Peshmerga, especially after shedding blood to retake the city, will simply walk away and see the small paramilitary police force of Sunnis move in. The role the Iranians will choose to play is unclear. A fair number of Mosul’s one million residents support IS, leaving open the question of ethnic cleansing and score-settling.

Sound Familiar?

The United States continues to dig the same hole deeper in Iraq. It sees problems in a wholly-military light, focusing on an urban assault rivaling set-piece battles of WWII while paying little attention to the underlying political factors that will surely snatch defeat from any “victory.”

Sound familiar?

This post was originally published at WeMeantWell.com

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Peter Van Buren

Peter Van Buren

Peter Van Buren has served with the Foreign Service for over 23 years. He received a Meritorious Honor Award for assistance to Americans following the Hanshin earthquake in Kobe, a Superior Honor Award for helping an American rape victim in Japan, and another award for work in the tsunami relief efforts in Thailand. Previous assignments include Taiwan, Japan, Korea, the UK and Hong Kong. He volunteered for Iraq service and was assigned to ePRT duty 2009-10. His tour extended past the withdrawal of the last combat troops.

Van Buren worked extensively with the military while overseeing evacuation planning in Japan and Korea. This experience included multiple field exercises, plus civil-military work in Seoul, Tokyo, Hawaii, and Sydney with allies from the UK, Australia, and elsewhere. The Marine Corps selected Van Buren to travel to Camp Lejeune in 2006 to participate in a field exercise that included simulated Iraqi conditions. Van Buren spent a year on the Hill in the Department of State’s Congressional Liaison Office.

Van Buren speaks Japanese, Chinese Mandarin, and some Korean (the book’s all in English, don’t worry). Born in New York City, he lives in Virginia with his spouse, two daughters, and a docile Rottweiler.

Though this is his first book, Peter’s commentary has been featured on TomDispatch, Salon, Huffington Post, The Nation, American Conservative Magazine, Mother Jones, Michael Moore.com, Le Monde, Daily Kos, Middle East Online, Guernica and others.

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