The Battle for Mosul: Has the US Backed an Incompetent Commander in Iraq?
The War on Terror

The Battle for Mosul: Has the US Backed an Incompetent Commander in Iraq?

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With the Iraqi army battling to free Mosul from the clutches of ISIS, the coalition forces supporting the effort are hoping that this time will be different. In the past, the Iraqi army – undertrained and poorly led -- has faltered in the face of this enormous challenge.

As the battle of Mosul rages, the U.S. military may learn the hard lesson soon: You can’t fabricate a good army general. You get one only after decades of proven and tested experience in battle.  

Related: Factbox: Once-tolerant Mosul Site of Iraq Push Against Islamic State 

The commander in question is Major General Najim Jabouri. In April 2015, Jabouri was named the head of Nineveh Operations that will oversee the liberation of Mosul. Jabouri, a 60-year-old Sunni, is a former Iraqi air defense brigadier general from a town to the south of Mosul. 

To the Americans, Jabouri is a hero and patriot. To the Iraqis, Jabouri is unqualified for his high-profile military position. Still, this man will soon lead the most critical mission against ISIS: the battle to retake Mosul.


In June 2014, ISIS captured Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city in the north. The fall of the city sent shockwaves throughout the world.  

Within days, ISIS controlled one-third of Iraq. Four Iraqi army divisions and police forces in four provinces collapsed, and a new civil war broke out. Millions were displaced. Christians were forced to leave. Within a month, ISIS gained control of one-third of Syria as well. An Islamic caliphate, the dream of every Islamic fundamentalist, was declared. 

Soon ISIS was threatening Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan region, provoking the United States to launch air raids to protect the city. ISIS massacred and enslaved thousands of Yazidis in addition to beheading Western journalists and aid workers.

In the wake of its stunning success, approximately 40,000 terrorists from more than 100 countries traveled to Syria and Iraq to join ISIS. ISIS’s propaganda machine produced no less than 100 videos a month and controlled tens of thousands of social media accounts. ISIS continues to make tens of millions of American dollars in Syria and Iraq. Its ground operations expanded to Lebanon, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Nigeria, Cameron, Niger, Chad, Yemen and Afghanistan.

Related: U.S. Helped Clinch Iraq Oil Deal to Keep Mosul Battle on Track

Nothing since 9/11 has had worse consequences than the fall of Mosul. The city remains the largest ISIS-controlled population center, numbering roughly one million people. Mosul is strategically vital. It is close to Syria, Turkey and Kurdistan. It also home to half of the former Iraqi army officers and produces more grain and livestock than any other province in Iraq – the military and commodity resources from which ISIS draws its strength. Without retaking Mosul, ISIS will never be defeated. If the city can be taken back, ISIS’s demise will be at hand.

The Commander

Jabouri has a speckled history in both military and civilian roles. As police commander in Tal Afar, west of Mosul, he worked with American Colonel H. R. McMaster, then commander of U.S. Army 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment and now a lieutenant colonel, to defeat a counterinsurgency operation in Iraq in September 2005. 

Three years later, while serving as the city mayor, General Jabouri vanished from Tal Afar. It turns out Jabouri and his family were in Washington, D.C., where he had applied for asylum while working at the United States Defense Department's Near East South Asia (NESA) Center for Strategic Studies as a Distinguished Research Fellow.

Jabouri told a McClatchy reporter in October 2008 that he fled Iraq because he was afraid al-Qaeda would kill him and kill his family members. Although he was living in Tal Afar, he claimed he moved his family from their home Baghdad to the Kurdistan region after his second house in Mosul was blown up. After most of the Americans withdrew from Iraq, and Jabouri was offered a job at NESA, he seized the opportunity and took it.

David Lamm, deputy director of NESA, gave another explanation for Jabouri’s escape from Iraq. “What happened is that Najim is a Sunni and when the government (in Iraq) changed politically later on and became Shiite, there was a security issue for both him and his family,” said Lamm in a phone interview. This is not a credible explanation since every government in Iraq after 2003 has been led by a Shiite Prime Minister. The Iraqi government had not changed in 2008, the year Najim left Iraq. 

Related: U.S. General Says Will Not Support Shi'ite Militia I\in Mosul Campaign

Ali Abbo, who headed a human rights organization in Tal Afar during the mayorship of Jabouri, told me that his disappearance in 2008 remains a “mystery.”  

The Distinguished Research Fellow?

As a fellow at NESA from 2008 to 2015, Jabouri appeared in many Middle East-related seminars after the Arab Spring. He wrote several papers about the situation in Iraq and also wrote op-eds for several major publications, including The New York Times and The Guardian. 

Jabouri seems like a strange choice for the U.S. military and the NESA center, if only because many Iraqi military officials speak fluent English, and Jabouri is not fluent. U.S. universities and think tanks employ dozens of Arab-American scholars who are experts on regional issues addressed in his material. The Arab Spring, which occurred during Jabouri’s tenure at NESA, happened in six Arab countries, but not in Iraq. Jabouri had little experience outside of his country, and even his region. 

How did a small town mayor end up at NESA?  Lamm explained, “He was recommended by a friend of mine: General H. R. McMaster…[Jabouri] was instrumental in setting up the Arab Awakening and working with the Americans in that province where H. R. was. He came to the United States and General McMaster contacted me and told me that [Jabouri] was a general in the Iraqi army before the American intervention there.”  

The Awakening that Lamm referred to was a tribal anti al-Qaeda movement that appeared and spread in the central region of Iraq. It did not have a strong presence in Nineveh or Tal Afar in the far north of the country. However, that Jabouri and McMaster had a close relationship is indisputable.

Tarnished Brass

After his tenure at NESA, in April 2015, Jabouri was recommissioned in the Iraqi army to oversee the liberation of Mosul, which did not sit well the Iraqi military. Jabouri’ limited military experience and his request for asylum made him something of a pariah with Iraqi brass. 

Related: Iraq's Traumatized Minorities--A Test of Unity After Mosul Offensive 

Jabouri pretended to be a high-ranking military officer, but was instantly exposed; he also claimed master degrees in art and science from the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. Instead, he was awarded an honorary degree a few weeks ahead of his arrival in Iraq from that college in those subjects. It had been pre-dated to allay Iraqi protests against the appointment of a non-general staff officer in the war against ISIS. 

Troubling Past

If true that careless titles and a questionable research record masked his modest qualifications, what Jabouri lacks in merit could be explained as realpolitik. In April 2006, Jabouri revealed more about his past in a New Yorker article on Tal Afar.  The writer reported, “The Mayor had once been tempted to join the insurgency. He lost his military career in 2003, when L. Paul Bremer III, the administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority—the American occupation government—dissolved the old Iraqi Army.” 

This turn of events in 2003 was critical for Jabouri.  Admitting that his dashed hopes within the legitimate Iraqi military drew him to the brink of defecting to the dark side, where he would have had the chance to assume leadership, revealed Jabouri’s motivation as practical rather than ideological. Perhaps most troublesome is that many of Jabouri’s former colleagues in the Iraqi army are now working for ISIS.

Jabouri explained in The New Yorker article that Bremer’s dissolution of the Iraqi Army implied that army leaders who did not offer support to the U.S. would be killed. He said, “Bremer gave the order that whole families die. I decided that if my children died, I would pick up my gun in revenge. I thought before that all Americans, like Bremer and the people we saw on TV, were killers and turned guns on Iraqis.” Despite admitting he would have rather joined the insurgents than ally with the U.S., Jabouri was chosen as the commander of the most important battle against ISIS.

The Battle

Shortly after being appointed and returning to Iraq, Major General Jabouri declared in June 2015 that the long-awaited operation to liberate Mosul had begun. Two days later, he received official pushback when it was clear that only the Iraqi prime minister had the power to make such a statement. In the same month, The Daily Beast interviewed Jabouri and described his plan to liberate Mosul as “fantasy.” 

Related: For U.S. and Obama, Mosul Campaign Is Calculated Risk

In March 2016, Jabouri announced another operation to retake Mosul. Despite the support of the U.S. air force, the U.S. Marines’ artillery and Kurdish forces, Jabouri’s troops made little to no advancement.

For several weeks, the Iraqi army battled ISIS over the control of some insignificant villages nearby. Most telling, Iraqi soldiers were reported fleeing the liberated villages in the wake of ISIS’s counterattacks. General Ziryan Shekhwasani, the commander of the Kurdish troops in Makhmour, complained to the Al-Monitor in March 2016 that Jabouri’s Iraqi army units didn’t seem to be up to the task.

Remarkably, in the time that Major General Jabouri assumed his command in April 2015 until now, Iraqi forces not under his command have performed well. Government forces, Kurds and Shiite militias have liberated the cities of Tikrit, Sinjar, Ramadi, Beiji and Fallujah, and ISIS’s area of control in Iraq has been reduced to less than half of its former area.  

Jabouri’s press office did answer a question regarding his weak performance. “Mosul in not Tikrit nor Ramadi. …We don’t want to liberate Mosul the way other areas were liberated.”

When I asked David Lamm, deputy director of NESA about Jabouri’s performance since he was named the commander of the Ninevah region’s operations, Lamm avoided answering the question directly. But he mentioned two points: “He has ties in the U.S. obviously, and he can talk to military commanders. He has a lot of credibility on the American side.” 

It is important to Americans that he also is seen to be legitimate to Iraqis. The Jabouri tribe is one of the largest in Iraq, with one-half Sunni living in the Mosul area and the other half Shiite, located to the south of Baghdad. In fact, many of Iraq’s tribes have both Sunni and Shiite branches, making the political landscape very complicated. While Jabouri is Sunni, his wife is Shiite, which allows Jabouri, according to Lamm, to bridge the gap between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq to accomplish his mission.

Related: Ministers to Meet in Paris This Week to Discuss Mosul's future

The Recent Successes

In July 2016, the Iraqi army pushed ISIS’s defense lines from the north of the city of Beiji and captured Al-Qayyarah Airfield to the west of Jabouri’s forces. With Iraqi forces winning ground, Jabouri had a strategic advantage to finish the job.

In August, the Iraqi army and the Kurdish forces squeezed ISIS further. The Kurds captured about a dozen new villages to the east of Mosul, and the Iraqi forces controlled the town of al-Qayyarah, 40 miles to the south of Mosul. While the town was part of Jabouri’s area of operations, the Iraqi government used another general to lead the Iraqi forces in battle—a sign of disrespect and lack of confidence in Jabouri.

Today, with the Iraqi army about 40 miles from Mosul, the real battle to retake Mosul is beginning. Jabouri, who deserted his position as a mayor because he was terrified, who had not set foot in Iraq for seven years, who inflated his qualifications, and – most concerning - who has no formal tactical military training to defeat ISIS, is leading the most decisive battle against ISIS in Mosul. 

Who Is Behind Jabouri?

Given the shallow accomplishments and sketchy biographical details of the commander, why has Jabouri been given such an important responsibility? And by whom?

The appointment of Jabouri has never sat well in Baghdad. The first to object to his appointment was the Iraqi minister of defense Khaled al-Obaidi. In a TV interview with an Iraqi channel after the appointment, al-Obaidi, a former Iraqi air force officer from Mosul himself, was asked by the interviewer if al-Obaidi had brought major general Jabouri from the U.S.

Related: U.S. Expects Islamic State to Wield Chemical Weapons in Mosul Fight

“Don’t ask me about this issue. Because I have nothing to do with it … Go and read [Jabouri’s] appointment order to know how he was appointed,” al-Obaidi said. When the interviewer asked him why he disowned the matter, the Iraqi minister sighed. Nevertheless, the interviewer pressed the minister further.

“It was not my decision,” al-Obaidi clarified.

But you are the Iraqi defense minister!” the interviewer interrupted him.

“There are other parties who are higher than the defense minister,” al-Obaidi replied.

When the interviewer requested to see Jabouri’s appointment order, the defense minister said that he didn’t have it because Jabouri wasn’t on his ministry staff.

Lamm, the deputy director of NESA, says that he was directly involved in the discussions of Jabouri’s appointment because, at the time, Jabouri was Lamm’s employee. Careful to put distance between American military leadership and Jabouri, Lamm said, “We never went to the American ambassador in Iraq nor did the American ambassador in Iraq pressure anybody inside the Iraqi government to take Najim back in any capacity. It was essentially the government of Iraq reaching out to Najim.”

Lamm also said that Jabouri’s time in the United States, specifically his Master of Science in military strategy from the Command and General Staff College and from the National Defense University, was decisive. “Those [degrees] were key essentials, I think, in the decision of the prime minister.” We now know that the titles were honorary degrees.

Lukman Faily, the Iraqi ambassador to the U.S. at the time of Jabouri’s appointment, told me that the decision to name Jabouri was made by the Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi. Faily said he was not involved in the matter.

Ismael Alsodani was a brigadier general and the Iraqi military attaché to the U.S. until November 2009. He affirmed that Jabouri never graduated from any command and general staff college which qualifies him to serve as a commanding general of fighting forces. “The way he was appointed [as commander of Nineveh operations] was foggy and very questionable. He never served in the current Iraqi army nor held any position at it. I was expecting him to name a well-known officer -- one that completed the qualifying courses of military command.”

Alsodani told me that the Iraqi ministry of defense has a system for appointing and promoting commanding officers. There are also plenty of qualified Sunni officers from Mosul. “I – like other Iraqi officers – was surprised that Jabouri was named. His service timeline and C.V. don’t qualify him for this sensitive position.”    

The uncomfortable interview with Iraqi defense minister al-Obaidi hinted at details to which everybody close to the matter is already privy. What seems plausible is that the U.S. military establishment convinced the Obama administration to push Jabouri back to Iraq at a strategic moment by selling him to the Iraqi prime minister. The American embassy in Baghdad has denied any American interference in the matter. Suspiciously, the individuals responsible have left without a trace, and it is the Iraqi prime minister’s signature alone that sealed the appointment of Jabouri. The Iraqi prime minister’s press office did not respond to our inquiry over this issue.

Related: Malaysia on Alert as Mosul Offensive Stokes Fears of Militant Influx

Those individuals are most likely the U.S. Army colonels who worked with Jabouri a decade ago in Tal Afar. They are now generals with much more influence in Washington politics. Lieutenant General H. R. McMaster, who is now the director of the Army Capabilities Integration Center, is said to be planning the future of the American army. He recommended Jabouri to David Lamm at NESA.  

When McMaster’s 3rd armored cavalry regiment tour in Tal Afar was over in 2006, he was replaced by Colonel Sean McFarland’s 1st brigade combat team, 1st armored division. McFarland was until recently the commander of the U.S. led coalition against ISIS.       

Abbas Kadhim, a senior fellow at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University who specializes in the Middle East, summarized the Jabouri affair: “It is clear for anyone who listens to Major General Najim Jabouri’s talks, and reads his published writings that these writings don’t suit his very humble linguistic and scientific capabilities, which are best demonstrated by his public talks.”

Kadhim told me that the Iraqi prime minister made two grave mistakes by appointing Jabouri in his current position.  “First, he brought a former officer who wasn’t in Iraq for years and gave him the most important military position in the fight against ISIS. The second mistake is that the prime minister passed over some highly competent and qualified general staff officers who have been continuously involved in the war against ISIS. This is not a professional decision that we expected from the commander in chief.”

A Fabricated Hero

In their pursuit of a reliable Iraqi Sunni general, both the Bush and Obama administrations have fabricated a hero. But Jabouri is more a bumbling stooge than a local hero. President Bush praised him in public. News articles quoted American officers calling him a hero. They boosted him from police chief to mayor and then took him to WashingtonD.C., bestowing him with an undeserved fellowship in a Pentagon think-tank and granting him an honorary degree that he couldn’t otherwise earn. Finally, he was sent back to Iraq to lead the most important battle against the worst terror group ever known.

Although he still might appear to many as a magical solution to an expected post-liberation struggle in Mosul -- among the Iraqi government, the Kurds, the former governor of Mosul who brought a Turkish army battalion to the north of Mosul, and the Iranian-backed Shiite militias -- the hapless Jabouri is the U.S. choice.

“I will tell you if that (the battle to retake Mosul) doesn’t work out, he is always welcome back here in NESA…” adds Lamm.