By Eli Lake
February 23, 2015
Last week, top Pentagon
officials briefed reporters about plans for the Iraqi army and Kurdish forces,
with U.S. air support, to retake Mosulin
April or May. Iraq's prime minister, Haidar al-Abadi, has been more sober,
telling the BBC that he hoped Mosul would be retaken in a "few
months." On Sunday, Iraq's new defense minister declined to say whether
even this time frame was
There are sound reasons to
welcome the fall of Mosul. It would give momentum to an
Iraqi army that really needs to show some success to appeal to future
recruits. It would also be a huge blow to the jihadis, who want to
prove the caliphate they have declared is a historical inevitability.
Losing Mosul, a city made up largely of fellow Sunni Arabs, would
refute a case their propagandists have made skillfully on social media.
But the apparent
disagreement over the time frame is significant: If Iraq were to re-take
Mosul without a real plan for what comes next -- i.e., having credible
Sunni Arab leaders in place to administer the city -- it could intensify sectarian
hostility that is already breaking Iraq apart.
The worse-case scenario is a
repeat of what happened in
Amirli, a town north of Baghdad that was retaken from Islamic State
forces in September by a mixture of Iraqi army troops, Kurdish Peshmerga and
Shiite militias supported by Iran. Human rights groups have been documenting
how in the aftermath of the battle, Shiite militiamen attacked Sunni Arabs
who were not connected to the Islamic State and burned the homes of Sunni
families, simply as retribution. In Congressional
testimony in December, Sarah Margon, the Washington director for
Human Rights Watch said, "crudely empowered Shia militias are being used to
punish the Sunni population because of its sect."
So, assuming Iraq really
is preparing to take Mosul in the spring, it's worth asking who will be doing
According to officials I spoke
to in Iraq last month, the hope is that a new group of volunteers from the
region known as the Mosul Liberation Battalion will be the tip of the
spear. Last month, Osama al-Nujaifi, an Iraqi vice president, told NBC News that
the battalion had already conducted a number of
raids inside Mosul against Islamic State occupiers.
But other Iraqi officials told
me that the militia was largely untested, and it was unclear whether its leaders
would have any credibility with the population inside the city.
A senior U.S. official
who was briefed on the latest plans to take Mosul told me the new battalion
was trying to surround the city and put it under siege. But he, too, said
he did not know if the group was capable of helping administer Mosul once it
So the situation is this: U.S.
military leaders are openly talking about an imminent offensive on a city of
more than a million residents who are widely distrustful of the Baghdad
government; it's unclear whether the projected front-line troops for the
invasion are up to the task; there seems to be no comprehensive plan for what
happens after the fighting stops. It's enough to make one think the
uncertainty over the time table isn't the worst thing, if indeed a delay might
help clarify some of these issues.
Michael Knights, an Iraq
expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said he did not think
it was likely that Shiite militias or Kurdish forces would attempt to ethnically
cleanse Mosul, a la Amirli. But he does feel there is a disaster in the making
if a retreat by the Islamic State leaves a power vacuum. "The
politics of liberating Mosul have to be just perfect or the end result is that
Mosul quickly looks like Tripoli," Knights said, referring to the civil war
that has emerged in Libya since the U.S.-led coalition helped overthrow Muammar Qaddafi's
The analogy of Libya is cause
for concern. Obama and his top advisers touted the initial light footprint for
America's role in the revolution there as a smart alternative to the George
W. Bush-era occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. That argument may have
seemed persuasive in 2011. In 2015, however, Obama's reluctance to place
troops on the ground or actively help shape Libya's future looks
like a blunder.
The question now is whether Obama is
about to make a similar mistake in Iraq.