JOINT BASE ANDREWS, Maryland – Before they begin the long-anticipated push to liberate Mosul, a battle many expect to mark the final chapter of the Islamic State’s reign in Iraq, military leaders of the “counter-ISIL” coalition say they need more planning for what happens next.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter said American, Iraqi, and Kurdish forces are still taking up positions south and north of Iraq’s second-largest city, all according to plan. “That's all going to occur in the next few months,” Carter said.
But despite the unexpected speed with which Iraqi forces liberated Fallujah to the south and their relatively unopposed move northward, the Battle for Mosul does not appear imminent. At closed-door meetings at this military base just outside Washington, D.C., coalition leaders called for more preparation, including an after-battle plan for Mosul’s security, reconstruction, and something largely out of their hands: politics.
“I think one of the key things I took out of the meeting this morning was, with respect to Mosul, we shouldn’t underestimate the amount of preparation necessary to take on an operation like that,” Gen. Joseph Votel, top U.S. commander of troops in the Middle East, told reporters afterward. “It’s a big city, two million people, large geographic area, so we want to make sure we are well prepared.”
“So, things like force generation, making sure we’ve got the right stabilization plan in place, and [that] we’ve got the right political aspects in place here to help manage that city after the fight is done,” Votel said. “I think we generally all coalesced around that idea this morning, as we talked about it.”
Carter seconded that. “Most of our conversation today was not, in fact, about the movements of forces, because that was planned a long time ago. And that's going fine.
“Most of our conversation today was, as Gen. Votel indicated, about what happens after the defeat of ISIL in Mosul. Stabilization plans, reconstruction plans, and so forth. And we're identifying the requirements there, which are large, because as Gen. Votel indicated, it's a large city.”
“I think the biggest strategic concern of the defense ministers here was for the stabilization and reconstruction, which are not purely military aspects of the campaign, and to make sure that our plan — that the planning and the execution of them — is in time for the execution of the military aspect.”
In the works for more than a year, the drive on Mosul has been delayed by several factors. For example, Iraqi forces who fled the initial ISIS advance were deemed unready for the fight.
Carter said on Wednesday that U.S. troops and Iraqi forces have been repositioning for the Mosul push even before Fallujah’s liberation earlier this year.
“That has gone right according to plan, including the Qayyarah West seizure, which has always been part of the plan. The establishment of the base there, which our 560 [troops] will contribute to helping the Iraqis to establish. That will be the southernmost envelopment of Mosul.”
From the north will come the Kurdish fighters who, Carter said, have won his heart and respect. “Kurdish forces have performed spectacularly well in the course of the counter-ISIL campaign and make a very strong contribution,” he said.
Kurdish leaders were not invited to Wednesday’s meeting, a nod of deference to Baghdad. But Carter met with Kurdish President Masoud Barazani and Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi when he visited Iraq last week.
Critics of President Barack Obama’s war plans believe the U.S. has waited too long, at the expense of innocent suffering, to drive ISIS out of Iraq. But British Defense Secretary Michael Fallon said he did not feel the military planning was ahead of the civilian post-war planning.
“No, the shaping operations are underway,” he told reporters. “There is more work to be done to build up the brigades that are going to be needed, the Iraqi brigades that are going to be needed, to take back Mosul. But everybody in the coalition understands the recapture of Mosul is of different order to the recapture of Fallujah or Hit or Ruqbah or these other places.”
“It’s all the more important that this battle overall is won the day after liberation and that the liberation has the support of the local population,” Fallon said. “I think everybody’s aware this is the biggest prize of all, to get Daesh out of Mosul. It’s within sight but it’s going to take many more weeks of planning and, I guess, many more weeks of fighting.”
Max Boot, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the political after-plan should have been farther along by now.
“I think it's smart to wait until they know how to fill the vacuum of authority that will be left behind by ISIS's ouster —but that's something they should have been working on for the past two years,” Boot said. “The problem is that the government of Iraq, which is dominated by Iran and its Shiite sectarian proxies, has shown little interest in reaching out to Sunnis. And the Obama administration has not done a good job of exerting U.S. influence. That makes this a very difficult task to achieve.”
Meanwhile, in Syria
On the other flank of the anti-ISIS fight, U.S.-backed forces are pressing toward the city of Manbij – and eventually, it is presumed, to the group’s Syrian headquarters in Raqqa.
Carter and Votel praised fighters receiving help from U.S. Central Command.
“My observation is that the Syrian-Arab forces that are fighting in Manbij are fighting very hard and very well. Obviously, we’re in a support role there, advising, providing air support and so forth,” Carter said. “But they — it has been a tough fight, but they've certainly been strong in carrying the fight to the enemy there.”
Votel said, “With respect to Manbij, I've been extraordinarily pleased with the performance of our partner forces, the Syrian-Arab coalition, in particular. This is — as the secretary said, has been a very difficult fight. This is an area that – that the Islamic State is trying to hold on to.”
“And what I've been most impressed with is the deliberateness and the discipline with which our partner forces have conducted themselves,” Votel said. “They are moving slowly, they are moving very deliberately, mostly because they're concerned about the civilians that still remain in the city of Manbij.”
“And I think that that speaks very highly of their values and it speaks very highly of what they're about here. And I think we've picked the right partners for these operations,” he said. “I'm very pleased.”