Mosul is Pivotal in US Counterterrorism Strategy
Long-term consequences could abound if the US does not strike a balance in Iraq.
A coordinated attempt by Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and Kurdish Peshmerga forces supported by US-led coalition air power to liberate Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, from control of the Islamic State (IS) began in October 2016. The outcome of the battle, for better or worse, is certain: it will mark a turning point in the global counter-IS campaign. Furthermore, it could lend credibility to the often-debated effectiveness of the “light footprint” model of operations, which emphasizes regional partner leadership over US intervention when faced with a security crisis.
The United States has faced sharp criticism for its “lead from behind” strategy, which many point to exacerbating regional civil wars by preventing US forces from intervening and curtailing these conflicts. While the strategy clearly does not fit every situation, Mosul could serve as proof that it does work—on a level much larger than successful “light footprint” operations, including those against the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) in the Philippines and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in Colombia.
In a region where US policy has been chided for “half measures,” adhering to the “light footprint” model would not only demonstrate a commitment to the strategy’s success, but more critically form a strong base for future improvements in Iraq as the next US administration seeks to prevent a reemergence of extremism. This should include not only military operations, but governance and peacebuilding support amongst various stakeholders in northern Iraq, namely the Sunni tribes, Kurdish people and the Shia militias who help to liberate the city.
Mosul and US Counterterrorism
There are a number of situations that, if not thoroughly accounted, could make Mosul another case of “light footprint” failure rather than the blueprint for further operations against IS. The military plan developed by the ISF is arguably the least complicated aspect of the city’s liberation.
The main challenge is ensuring that the various actors at play maintain their promises to stay within defined operational areas. The ISF and Kurdish Peshmerga roles are clear, but the Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) has little in the way of direction. Despite an ISF spokesman indicating that the PMF would likely be used to secure the outlying areas of the largely Sunni city in order to minimize sectarian conflict, the Shia PMF sees the recapture of Mosul as a “national and religious duty.” This confluence of actors could lead to troubles after the city has been liberated as groups attempt to use battle merit to justify territorial gains.
The question of Mosul’s governance post-IS still remains largely unclear. Yet it is the resolution of this issue that will likely be the metric by which the success of the Mosul liberation is measured in the long run. The often-discussed Sunni-Shia balance that will factor heavily into any governance agreement has the potential to be hijacked by both the Turkish and Iranian governments to advance their own geopolitical goals as Mosul’s liberation progresses.
Finally, the human toll of military operations is underrepresented next to the above issues. Humanitarian efforts recently became a concern after the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees announced that it may not possess sufficient resources to handle the maximum number of refugees that may result from the operations being conducted in and around Mosul. IS has shown that it will attempt to force these civilians into staying to serve as cannon fodder.
The real challenge in Iraq will be ensuring that political and military leadership can effectively reestablish a presence in and around Mosul, and do so in a manner that does not inflame sectarian tensions or otherwise engender the Islamic State’s resurgence in the city.
Philippines, Colombia and Somalia
Providing training and advisement to foreign militaries became a pillar of US counterterrorism policy after September 11, 2001. The Philippines and Colombia represent operations, where according to a RAND study on the latter, “relatively intact governments found the will and resources to lead such efforts, despite facing severe security, corruption, and long-running socioeconomic challenges.”
The outgoing and incoming US administrations should examine instances of successful of holistic counterterrorism operations such as Colombia and the Philippines while heeding the warnings of Somalia where, despite consistent tactical victories, long-term counterterrorism efforts have proved strategically ineffective.
US special operations forces (SOF) have been supporting and training Somali National Army units for almost a decade but have yet to permanently defeat the al-Shabab insurgency. Critics point to an emphasis on military training and direct action operations over support for the Somali government to build a functioning state that is capable of defending itself from threats and supporting its citizens. Joint Somali-American military operations have successfully targeted al-Shabab leadership and training facilities, yet Somalia looks only marginally better than it did in 2011 when the Federal Government of Somalia wrested control of Mogadishu from militants.
Support for effective governance and a stable economy—two factors that can often help defeat insurgencies—are noticeably lacking in US aid for Somalia. Furthermore, any such provisions are concentrated in the capital Mogadishu, not the southern and central portions of the country, where population-centric counterinsurgency would bolster the military operations to degrade al-Shabab’s control over the regions.
Somalia demonstrates that even a militarily effective counterterrorism strategy cannot truly succeed unless support for governance and conflict resolution is as robust as support for direct action.
A post-operational report on US counterterrorism efforts in Colombia emphasized the importance of utilizing civil affairs units in supporting the host nations in governance and development operations over the years following the resolution of a conflict. A reliance on SOF troops is among the policy recommendations. While this may have been the case in Colombia, Iraq certainly requires a more nuanced approach.
The US should employ civil affairs units while involving members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) with a history of training police units such as Italy. Civil affairs troops could provide the necessary interlocution training to develop stable governance and de-conflict amongst rival groups, while effective police would allow the ISF to move on knowing the city remains secure.
Additionally, the Colombia report rejected a focus on short-term projects as these yielded only short-term results. Direct action raids are necessary for any successful counterterrorism operations, but at a certain point, the effort needs to shift to policing, governance and education. These population-centric operations will, in the long term, enable residents to return home with a sense of security and allow the government to effectively resume its duties.
While training ISF units in direct action operations should not cease, the US focus should shift to raising local police units that can take the place of ISF troops in the city. This will make the return to normalcy easier for the Moslawi population.
The RAND report on the Philippines concluded, after conducting interviews with Philippine and American security personnel, that transitioning from a military-centric security presence to a police-centric security model would be critical for internal security once operations against the ASG had concluded.
In 2011, Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines was beginning to shift from direct action against ASG to post-conflict governance. US SOF advisors began training the Philippines National Police Special Action Force (PNP SAF) to take over internal security in populated urban areas. Once established, the SAF proved to work both independently and in concert with the Philippine army to ensure the safety of major towns and cities in provinces where insurgents were most active. SOF commanders also set up eight fusion centers for intelligence sharing between US analysts and Philippine police and military units.
This gradual drawback of US “boots on the ground” proved effective, at least in the short term, but as of 2014, ASG has gained a slight boost when one of its main factions pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the caliph of IS.
It is important to ensure that the strategy, going forward, emphasizes a balance between collaborative direct action and population-centric counterinsurgency operations in a hybrid Colombia-Philippines model. As the military campaign against IS begins to wane, supporting effective governance in Mosul and Nineveh Province should take precedence for the US. After all, one of the driving reasons behind the Islamic State’s rise in Iraq was poor governance by Nouri al-Maliki’s government.
Therefore, it should be a priority to reinstate effective, non-sectarian government in areas formerly controlled by IS. Moderating the post-Islamic State reconstruction effort will likely be more important to the long-term stability of the Iraqi state than the ongoing military operations. It will be crucial to have non-military forces to de-conflict the inevitable issues that will emerge amongst the various actors in Mosul once the city has been liberated.
It is imperative for the US to shape its post-conflict strategy for Mosul now, funding both government and nonprofit governance and aid initiatives that will be ready to work when Mosul is cleared militarily. Waiting until the conflict has subsided to formulate a reconstruction plan will give external forces time to foment sectarian tensions and prevent a complete resolution of the violence that has plagued Iraq since 2003, leaving the proverbial wound in Iraqi society open to infection by other extremist groups.
Defeating the Islamic State
To be sure, it is unrealistic to apply the strategy for the Mosul offensive to Raqqa in Syria and other theaters where IS claims affiliates. However, a successful prosecution of the Mosul operations and a stable governance structure in the aftermath would produce lessons that could be adapted to contexts where the US wishes to defeat an enemy while maintaining a minimal troop presence on the ground.
Mosul could also showcase what a united Iraqi front composed of different groups who are often ethnically and religiously at odds with the other are capable of doing, providing the Iraqi state hope for its future.
The above goals are ambitious and, as outlined, the variables that could result in the implosion of the Mosul liberation operations are more numerous and already in play. With the opening skirmishes of the Mosul operations being livestreamed, the global audience is now front and center to what is a benchmark for the global counter-IS campaign. This, coupled with a media-savvy enemy that seems to be able to put a spin on even crippling defeats, could lead to a backlash affecting not just the Iraqi counter-IS effort, but the global US-led push to defeat the group.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
Photo Credit: Vadimmmus