It’s an unhappy anniversary.
Mosul — Iraq’s second-largest city — fell to Islamic State control exactly one year ago Wednesday and, because of weaknesses among Iraqi forces and the unexpected strength of terrorist fighters, analysts predict the Iraqis aren’t even close to reclaiming it, despite U.S. assurances that a major offensive would be underway by summertime.
Mosul fell entirely into the hands of the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS or ISIL, on June 10, 2014, when Iraqi government forces fled the city after about a week of battles. Defense officials said in a recent interview with the PBS show “Frontline” that the rapid fall of the city took them totally by surprise.
“There were several things that surprised us about ISIL,” retiring Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin E. Dempsey said in the May interview, including “the degree to which they were able to form their own coalition, both inside of Syria and inside of northwestern Iraq; the military capability that they exhibited; [and] the collapse of the Iraqi Security Forces.”
The general added, “Yeah, in those initial days, there were a few surprises.”
Gen. Dempsey was back in Iraq this week, insisting that U.S. officials are close to a decision on how to improve and accelerate the training of Iraqi Security Forces, including a proposal to set up more training camps in Anbar province, U.S. officials said Tuesday.
The U.S. officials told The Associated Press that the additional training could require up to 1,000 more American troops, but no final decisions have been made on details of the plan. The changes are aimed at bolstering the participation of Sunni tribes in the fight, but the plan is not likely to include the deployment of U.S. forces closer to the front lines to either call in airstrikes or advise smaller Iraqi units in battle, the AP reported.
Nora Bensahel, a distinguished scholar in residence at American University’s School of International Service, said the events of the past 12 months have shown that American officials underestimated the Islamic State’s ability to seize and hold ground.
“I don’t think anyone would have predicted not only that Mosul would be under ISIS control, but that ISIS would also control other key cities,” she said. “I think what we’ve learned about ISIS as an adversary over the past year is they are much more capable, much more determined and much more organized.”
In addition to Mosul, the Islamic State holds Ramadi and Fallujah, as well as several key cities in Syria. The fighters also are involved in struggles for control of the strategic oil facility at Baiji.
The one-year anniversary of the fall of Mosul coincides with the beginning of Ramadan, the monthlong Islamic holy month that the Islamic State has used to release propaganda or announce battlefield initiatives.
“My baseline expectation, a conservative estimate, is ISIS will do a victory dance as it comes upon one year fundamentally uncontested and still can claim to not be unseated from Mosul,” said Jessica Lewis McFate, research director at the Institute for the Study of War.
Ms. McFate said the longer the Islamic State holds the city, planting improvised explosive devices and fortifying defenses, the harder it will be for Iraqi forces and the U.S.-led international coalition to drive them out.
But the Obama administration insists it will do just that.
On Feb. 19, the Pentagon signaled that a counteroffensive ready to take Mosul could be planned as early as April. At the time, Mosul was suspected of being held by as many as 2,000 militants. Within a week of that announcement, defense officials scrubbed the notion, saying the Iraqi forces weren’t ready to fight and a fall timeline was more realistic.
Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told the Senate Armed Services Committee Feb. 26 that it would be “six to nine months, best estimate,” before Iraqi forces would be able to launch a major counteroffensive against the militants.
Linda Robinson, senior international policy analyst at the Rand Corp., said preparatory operations may begin, but Iraqi forces will not be ready to fight for control of the city through the end of the year. She said retaking Mosul is more of a “long-term project.”
“I do not believe the Iraqi Security Forces are in a position to launch a major operation to retake Mosul this year. I think that we need to be realistic,” said Ms. Robinson, who just returned from a nine-day trip to Iraq to see the forces firsthand. “We have to have a reality check about what this Iraqi force is capable of doing, and plan accordingly.”
The Pentagon’s plans may be further delayed after the unexpected fall of Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s Anbar province, in May. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said U.S.-trained Iraqi troops “vastly outnumbered” Islamic State militants in the city but “showed no will to fight.”
A Defense Department spokeswoman said the Iraqi government would set the timeline for any operations to retake Mosul, but Ms. Bensahel said that this autumn is simply not realistic given the fall of Ramadi.
With Iraqi forces already stretched thin, efforts to liberate Ramadi would take priority over any efforts in Mosul, she predicted.
“The fall of Ramadi was so swift and unexpected to the Iraqi government that any plans to retake Mosul will be put off for a long time while the Iraqi Security Forces regroup,” she said. “That’s where you’re going to see the Iraqi government focus their attention, maybe for a very long time.”
As Iraqi forces try to put together a strategy to push the Islamic State out of the cities it holds, Ms. McFate said, the Islamic State likely will try to further its reach during Ramadan, which begins June 17, especially in Syria between Homs and Damascus.
“I think that’s where ISIS is going to try to make its greatest territorial gains this month, but I do think spectacular attacks in Baghdad is something they may do,” she said.
She also said Islamic State fighters may repeat their pattern of attacking other cities to lure Iraqi Security Forces away from their defense of Baghdad, opening the capital to attacks using car bombs or improvised explosive devices.
At the summit of the Group of Seven leading industrial nations in Germany this week, critics pounced after President Obama acknowledged that there was “no complete” strategy to defeat the Islamic State and that the U.S. was waiting for its Iraqi allies to formulate training and operational plans.
“What has President Obama been doing for the last 10 months?” the Republican National Committee wrote Monday.
House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, responded to Mr. Obama’s comments with a tweet of an emoticon of a person shrugging (“\_()_/”) as his interpretation of the administration’s strategy.
“We want to get more Iraqi security forces trained, fresh, well-equipped, and focused,” Mr. Obama said. “We’re reviewing a range of plans for how we might do that, essentially accelerating the number of Iraqi forces that are properly trained and equipped and have a focused strategy and good leadership.”
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