For the past seven months, The United States has led an international alliance against ISIS and launched thousands of air strikes against ISIS positions in Iraq and Syria. While ISIS momentum has been stopped in Iraq since October and in Syria during the last two months, the major cities controlled by ISIS like Mosul, Tikrit, Fallujah and al-Raqaa are still waiting to be liberated.
A plan to liberate Mosul in April or May by 20,000 US trained Iraqi soldiers was leaked a few weeks ago, outraging the new US defense secretary who said that leaking the plan was a mistake. As the Iraqi government forces and their Shiite and Sunni allies launched another major assault on Tikrit a few days ago, it is important to understand why these cities have not been liberated yet.
A propaganda video shows ISIS fighters attacking Iraqi government forces and Shiite militias in the town of Beiji, to the north of Baghdad, driving them away, killing several of their soldiers, capturing and destroying their armor vehicles. A US made Abraham tank was destroyed among several other vehicles.
When one compares ISIS and the Iraqi government forces and its allies (the Kurdish peshmerga, the Shiite militias and the Sunni tribes), the numbers of fighters are remarkably skewed -- approximately 10 to 1 against ISIS. There are an estimated few hundreds of thousand allied fighters against a few tens of thousands of ISIS fighters. ISIS also lacks an air force while its men are continuously being bombarded by allied forces. So how does ISIS maintain its control over these major cities?
How, then, is ISIS able to gain territory, destroy historical artifacts and ruthlessly kill anyone who doesn’t subscribe to their brand of religion?
The explanation is simple and complicated on the same time. ISIS fighters are motivated, well trained, well equipped, well prepared and well led. The allied forces are not. Since the reformation of the Iraqi government forces after the 2003 US led invasion, corruption, political interference, poor command and several other issues had undermined military performance. Since these forces faced the first major crisis in April 2004 (during the Sadr first nationwide armed rebellion coincided with the first battle of Fallujah) until the ISIS resurgence and the fall of Mosul in the summer of 2004, the Iraqi government forces had repeated one pattern:
Whenever the insurgency staged a major attack, the soldiers leave their positions and guns, remove their uniforms and go home. Then a general pardon will be issued by the government and they will be asked to join the army and police again. Unlike ISIS fighters, they simply don’t want fight or die. They think their job is operate checkpoints, be paid and go home.
Counterinsurgency involves three phases: 1. Clearing the area by an able force (ideally Special Forces), 2. Holding the area by regular forces to protect the population and prevent the enemy from retaking the territory, and 3. Starting a reconstruction and providing services and political reconciliation to win the local population. The commanders of insurgency and counterinsurgency from Lawrence of Arabia to General David Petraeus had all learned, practiced and mastered these phases.
It is not easy to teach a regular army to conduct counterinsurgency. The US military needed four years until Petraus implemented that strategy during the 2007 surge. The Iraqi forces -- despite 12 years of fighting the insurgency -- didn't learn that yet.
Beiji witnessed a success and a failure for the Iraqi government forces. For eight months, they managed to repel dozens of ISIS attacks on Iraq's largest oil refinery, located next door, despite several inaccurate media reports of the fall of the refinery. But they also failed to recapture the city despite several offensives. They have simply never employed the three phases strategy.
Sending regular army soldiers or militia fighters to fight ISIS will not only fail, but also will sacrifice the men, their arms and equipment and give ISIS another opportunity to produce another victory film. That is why one ISIS fighter is an equivalent of ten regular Iraqi soldiers.
When engaging an enemy that uses tanks, artillery, small arms, explosives to booby trap most of the city buildings, suicide armored car bombs that can’t be stopped and fighters that are happy to die, you need Special Forces and the Special Forces only. As a former soldier at the Iraqi Special Forces and as an observer, I can claim that unlike the rest of the Iraqi government forces, the Iraqi Special Forces have been fighting ISIS effectively since the fall of Fallujah in January 2014.
They are the only troops equipped for the task. Otherwise, the current standoff will continue for years and any talk about a near liberation of Mosul is merely a dream.
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