The offensive to retake Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, has reportedly begun but neither Washington nor Baghdad will be hoisting a “Mission Accomplished” banner any time soon.
The attack kicked off with Iraqi forces¸ supported by U.S. airstrikes and Kurdish Peshmerga forces, freeing towns about 40 miles south of the city, which fell to the Islamic State during the group’s 2014 blitzkrieg that saw it capture large swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria.
“Operations to liberate areas surrounding Mosul launched today,” Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi tweeted early Thursday. “First stage of our offensive has been swift and decisive.”
Operations to liberate areas surrounding Mosul launched today. First stage of our offensive has been swift and decisive. Daesh is in retreat— Haider Al-Abadi (@HaiderAlAbadi) March 24, 2016
"Daesh is in retreat," he tweeted, using a derogatory Arabic acronym for the extremist network.
Even though the Iraqi government has reportedly dubbed the new campaign “Operation Conquest,” the push began on the far periphery of the city, which shows how far Baghdad and its allies have to go before they can liberate Mosul.
In fact, some U.S. and Iraqi officials told the Associated Press that the city might not be freed this year, as Baghdad’s army is still struggling to get back on its feet after the mass desertions that decimated the force as ISIS marched across the country.
It’s unclear if Iraq has enough personnel, let alone firepower, to take back the city. Coalition and Iraqi leaders estimate that eight to 12 brigades, or an estimated 24,000 to 36,000 troops, will be needed for the Mosul operation, the AP reported. But only somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 Iraqi troops have been deployed to the base that’s supposed to be a launch pad for the campaign.
The new push likely will end up resembling other, drawn-out battles in the fight against the terror group, such as the one of the key city of Ramadi. The Iraqi army successfully liberated the city, located about 70 miles from the capital of Baghdad, but only after weeks of conflict.
The battle lumbered on for so long that Defense Secretary Ash Carter and others publicly complained about the pace before the city was at last retaken.
Or it could mirror the long and bloody siege of Kobani, a predominantly Kurdish town situated only seven miles from the Syria-Turkey border. The town’s strategic importance prompted the U.S. and its allies to carry out daily airstrikes backed up by Kurdish ground forces launching multiple ground offensives before militants were finally driven out.
Overseeing all of this is an Iraqi government that, like others before them, is vulnerable to political crisis. A change in leadership could further complicate the timetable to liberate Mosul.