Obama's Rushing to Disaster in Iraq

By Eli Lake

Bloomberg View

February 23, 2015

Now would be a very good time for U.S. President Barack Obama to think about what happens after Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, is liberated from the Islamic State.

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 realistic.

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 the liberating. 

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 fell.

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 government.

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.