Last week U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) gave a remarkably detailed press briefing about its intended late spring offensive to drive the Islamic State out of the critical Iraqi city of Mosul. Critics immediately jumped on CENTCOM and the Obama administration for telegraphing its intended operations to the enemy. In an open letter to the president, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) warned that the “disclosures not only risk the success of our mission, but could also cost the lives of U.S., Iraqi, and coalition forces.”
Whether one agrees with McCain and Graham or not, the CENTCOM disclosures certainly were odd. Military officers are typically loathe to provide specific details of future campaigns. So why did CENTCOM broadcast its plans?
According to one report, U.S. officials wanted to warn the estimated 1,500-2,000 Islamic State fighters in Mosul that they would soon face an onslaught from 25,000 or more coalition personnel, including five Iraqi army brigades and three Kurdish Pershmerga brigades, all backed by U.S. airpower, intelligence, and advising. Perhaps Islamic State fighters would retreat rather than stand and defend their de facto capital in Iraq, thereby saving a great deal of blood and treasure for everyone concerned.
This rationale is at odds with other U.S. activities in Iraq, however. While advisers have been training Iraqi troops, and planning (and advertising) the impending Mosul offensive, coalition air forces have stepped up bombing in and around the city. If the goal is to encourage the militants to flee, we might expect U.S. officials to allow a safe exit route. But bombing may send exactly the opposite message: it tells the fighters that if they try to flee the city they will exposed to massive U.S. airpower. If anything, the air campaign could encourage them to hunker down and strengthen their defenses.
So what’s really going on? First, the Islamic State may not be the intended audience of the U.S. messages. It knows a fight is coming—the fall of Mosul galvanized the U.S. return to Iraq last summer, after all—so it probably won’t make a tremendous difference whether the group expects the fight in May or some other time. The need to defend Mosul is likely something that the Islamic State has already factored into its plans. And given the notoriously poor operational security of the Iraqi Army, the chances of keeping secret any Iraqi-led campaign were poor anyway.
Instead, the United States may be speaking more to its coalition partners and Iraqi counterparts than to the Islamic State. We can only guess as to the dynamics behind closed doors, but coalition partners might be holding back their own military contributions and political support amid doubts about U.S. and Iraqi resolve to wrest control of the region from the Islamist militants. Iraqi forces also might doubt U.S. willingness to support them in any planned offensives. Or they might prefer to first contest Islamic State control of western Iraq rather than the north. The United States might be trying to signal its own trustworthiness as a partner, stiffen the backs of unmotivated Iraqi forces, create a fait accompli with regards to campaign planning, or some combination of the above. In short, it may be aiming its communications at targets other than the Islamic State.
One can also sense a sort of “heads we win, tails you lose” logic to the U.S. public messages about Mosul. If the Islamic State forces uncharacteristically flee without a fight, they will face humiliation and a setback to their claims of control in Iraq. That’s a win, at least operationally, for Washington and Baghdad. Conversely, if the Islamic State decides to stand its ground and starts trying to flow reinforcements to Mosul in preparation for the defense of the city, that could be a good thing operationally, too. These forces will be highly vulnerable to the stepped-up coalition air attacks, which are already seriously threatening the militants’ lifeline between Raqqa and Mosul. Sending reinforcements to Mosul will also draw Islamic State resources away from Syria, where the coalition’s ability to fight is much more constrained, and into Iraq, where that ability is more robust.
Whatever the rationale behind the U.S. statements, the overall plan to retake Mosul carries serious tactical and strategic risks. These risks exist whether CENTCOM releases a trailer for the campaign or not. Urban combat is costly—even if you win. The United States knows this from its own history in cities such as Hue during the Tet Offensive of the Vietnam War. The Iraqis know it from their history, too, such as the battles for Khorramshahr and Basra during the war with Iran. And the more recent experience of Fallujah is in the living memory of many soldiers from both Iraq and the United States.
In Mosul these forces will be inviting battle against extremely motivated Islamic State troops with all the advantages of being on the defense, including knowledge of the terrain, control of the local population, and the use of that population as a giant civilian shield. It’s great to “want Mosul to look a lot more like the liberation of Paris than Stalingrad,” but it is important to remember that that “easy” liberation came more than two years after the horrendous battle at Stalingrad, which lasted five months and caused over a million casualties. The march into Paris was only possible because of the staggering losses the German army suffered on the Eastern front.
Moreover, because the Islamic State is likely to be isolated with little chance of escape, it may fight with special ferocity. Sun Tzu famously noted that soldiers fight hardest when they are on “death ground,” which is part of the reason he advised leaders to avoid sieges. Meanwhile Iraqi forces will mostly be Shiites and Kurds, seeking to take back a Sunni city. A cynic might point out that they are being asked to die for territory belonging to the very sectarian rivals they fought over the last decade before the Islamic State appeared. Whether their cohesion holds and whether Sunnis welcome them as liberators are big question marks.
If the answer to either question is no, pressure for U.S. escalation will be intense, and the Obama administration may be tempted to increase the direct U.S. combat role. Ironically, what looks like an approach to bloodless victory with Iraqis in the lead, might end up with U.S. troops involved in enduring offensive ground operations.
Joshua Rovner is a political scientist at Southern Methodist University. Caitlin Talmadge is a political scientist at George Washington University.