The long-anticipated battle to retake Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, is the biggest test to date for President Obama’s strategy against ISIS and other terrorist groups active in the Middle East.
The chances of success are decidedly mixed. Paradoxically, the forces assembled against the Islamic State may succeed only to hand Obama another Mideast failure.
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Reports from the front line Thursday said the offensive to retake Mosul is moving faster than military planners had expected. Iraqi units and Kurdish Peshmerga were successfully clearing outlying villages in preparation for a decisive attack on the city itself.
So far, so good. This battle pits roughly 90,000 coalition soldiers with multinational air and logistics support against an ISIS force the Defense Department estimates at 3,000 to 5,000. While it’s still early, prospects for a battlefield win are promising.
But a battlefield victory has precisely zero to do with whether Obama’s anti-terror strategy—often tagged his “doctrine”—proves out.
Since he outlined his strategy at West Point’s 2014 commencement ceremony, Obama has sought to put local forces in the front of the war against ISIS and other radical militants, assigning modest numbers of U.S. troops—roughly 2,500 in this case—to advise, spot artillery targets, ease communications, and the like.
The success of this strategy can be measured only after the fighting ends and Mosul stabilizes (or not) under something resembling normal conditions. Think of the Bush administration’s 2003 invasion of Iraq. All too grandly, officials likened it to the conclusive battles against Japan in 1945, after which a highly elaborated bureaucracy took control in Tokyo and remade the nation after years of careful forethought.
Related: Factbox: Once-tolerant Mosul site of Iraq push against Islamic State
Nothing of the sort ensued in Iraq, of course: There was no post-victory plan. The result was years of disorder, violence, sectarianism—and, eventually, the rise of the Islamic State.
Grimly enough, we ought to brace ourselves to watch as the Obama administration makes the same mistake again.
Study Obama’s plan as he outlined it in that much-noted West Point speech. It’s a military strategy and little more. At this point the fatal flaws as the U.S. applies the approach in Mosul are two:
• First, the Obama administration isn’t listening to itself when it repeats incessantly that “there’s no military solution” to the Middle East’s too-numerous conflicts. In the run-up to this week’s mobilization there was too little diplomacy to secure the many-sided coalition backing this effort and too little political work on the ground.
There is already squabbling about which forces will enter Mosul once the Islamic State’s occupation is broken. The Kurdish Peshmerga, which opened a direct attack on Mosul late Thursday, have promise to withdraw when the fighting ends because Turkey counts them “terrorists” threatening its national security.
Related: For U.S. and Obama, Mosul Campaign Is Calculated Risk
The ever-mercurial President Erdoğan, meantime, insists that Turkish troops will participate in the invasion and a post-victory occupation, even as Baghdad asserts they are unwelcome on Iraqi soil.
On the ground, Mosul’s infrastructure is all but destroyed. Water and electricity supplies are intermittent at best; schools, if they are still standing, barely function; there’s nothing in the municipal treasury, and the economy, needless to say, is nearly nonexistent.
Who’s going to manage all this? Where’s the administration-in-waiting? What will the post–ISIS political culture look like? Washington has offered no answers.
On this score, Mosul is the perfect illustration of a truth the Obama White House simply cannot grasp: Order anywhere in the Middle East can’t be restored until a holistic strategy involving experts in many disciplines are brought into the policy process. It will cost money, yes, but not as much as what a lot of analysts now call our “endless war.”
Related: ISIS Crushes Rebellion Plot in Mosul as Army Closes In
Second, Washington is ducking problems inherent in the very composition of the forces fighting to retake Mosul. This battle has post-victory sectarian violence and disorder written all over it.
The main forces moving on Mosul are the Iraqi Security Forces, or I.S.F., which number 54,000 to 60,000, and the Kurds, who field 40,000 troops. But Sunni tribal militias and Shi’a militias backed by Iran, totaling 16,000, are also in the fight. News reports say the I.S.F. is tasked to keep these groups from raising sectarian banners as they head into battle.
It’s not a foregone conclusion, but there is a clear danger that the multi-force fighting for Mosul will import all the sectarian animosities across the Middle East into the city once it drives out ISIS.
Washington, in other words, now risks landing back at square one. In its official announcements, the Pentagon makes virtually no mention of sectarian elements in the anti–ISIS coalition. But the Gulf States, which are Sunni-dominated, assert that the Iranian-backed Shi’a militias will turn Mosul into a “catastrophe.”
You have to wish none of this will come to be. In the best outcome, a nonsectarian political culture will materialize in post–ISIS Mosul, and the Sunni and Shi’a communities will learn to co-exist as they long had prior to the 2003 invasion.
Is anybody rushing to the bank on that prospect?
Mosul’s object lesson for Americans is perfectly clear: Once again, military considerations are too prominent in the U.S. policy process and the State Department’s role too diminished.