By: FA ME (Source: The Economist)
IT WAS not an auspicious start. On March 24th the government in Baghdad announced the beginning of operations to retake the city of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest, from Islamic State (IS). The first phase went well. An Iraqi force of about 5,000 quickly overran several villages. But within a few days progress stalled, when a counter-attack by no more than 200 IS fighters resulted in the loss of the village of al-Nasr and the high ground it sits on. Some 20 Iraqi soldiers were killed. An American marine also died from a rocket attack on a small American “fire base”, established to provide artillery support, an indication of America’s expanding role in the conflict.
Iraqi officials still talk positively about pushing IS out of Mosul before the end of the year. It is a big prize: the mainly Sunni Arab city had a population of 2m when it fell to IS in June 2014, and is the key to regaining control of the northern province of Nineveh. But the setback at al-Nasr has been a reality check. Just to take and hold al-Nasr, the local operations command says it needs to bring in more tribal fighters and police.
Military analysts reckon there is, in fact, little prospect of a concerted attempt to regain Mosul before 2017. Michael Pregent, a former Intelligence Officer who served as an adviser to Kurdish peshmerga fighters in 2005-06 and worked with Sons of Iraq during the 2007 surge (and is now at the Hudson Institute, a think-tank), says no force large enough to do the job has been built. One under-strength Iraqi division with some American military advisers will not cut it. Pentagon sources reckon that a force of at least 40,000 will be needed.
The problems do indeed appear immense. Iraqi intelligence puts IS’s fighting strength in Mosul at around 10,000, although the Americans think that the number is dwindling as IS comes under pressure elsewhere. Whatever the precise figure, IS has had the best part of two years to build multilayered defences. Mr Pregent says that although there are reasonably capable peshmerga forces to the east of Mosul that can help, these units have little interest in trying to take a city that will never be a part of Kurdistan and in which their presence would provoke ethnic tensions.
The enemy also gets a vote, at least on the battlefield. Patrick Martin of the Institute for the Study of War, a think-tank in Washington, DC, notes that a recent spate of spectacular suicide-attacks by IS in the south suggests that its strategy is now to destabilise Iraq’s southern provinces, thus putting pressure on the Iraqi army and the Hashd to restrict their operations in the north and west. IS knows that the fall of Mosul will signal, in effect, its defeat in Iraq; so it is determined to delay that moment for as long as it can. It may one day lose its bloody grip on the city. But when, how and at what cost it will be liberated, remains to be seen.