Last week the Hill reported that Department of Defense officials were giving serious consideration to expanding the involvement of U.S. military advisors in Iraq down to brigade level in support of the expected battle to retake Mosul from the Islamic State (ISIS). According to an Iraqi expert cited in the article, having U.S. advisors sent down to that level would “make a massive difference” in how the Iraqi forces perform in battle. It appears not only this alleged expert, but also far too many in Washington believe that American military personnel are like magic beans. Just plant them in an Iraqi army unit and overnight a powerful stalk of fighting men will appear.
Base a military operation on this belief and both the United States and Iraq could be courting disaster.
I have been in Iraq not far from Mosul for the past several days talking with men and women who have suffered under ISIS, along with other officials who know the region and people well. From my experience as a military trainer of Iraqi personnel in 2009, combined with the overwhelming consensus among those I have interviewed, it is clear that the problems with the Iraqi army’s disintegration in 2014 when confronted with ISIS, and the conditions affecting the future battle for Mosul, go far deeper than anything a handful of U.S. military advisors are going to solve.
The factors that determine success or failure on a battlefield are many and complex. Just two years ago entire Iraqi army divisions evaporated into the hot desert sun against a tiny number of determined fighters from ISIS. Failures of that magnitude are not resolved in a short period of time, nor are they healed by seeding the force with a handful of American soldiers, however excellent and professional those U.S. service members may be.
In order to be successful in any future battle, the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) must first find within themselves the spirit and drive to become effective fighting men. Once properly motivated, they must pay the price of training and learn to work effectively together at the squad, platoon, company, battalion and then brigade level. Each of those levels must be mastered before an army can successfully defeat an enemy in battle.
The Iraqi army is reportedly planning to deploy eight brigades to retake Mosul. If each of those brigades aren’t sufficiently trained at the squad-through-battalion levels, it won’t matter if the American trainers are the most brilliant and gifted tacticians known to man. The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) brigades will still be inadequate for the task. But there are bigger issues facing the ISF than merely their tactical ability.
The Iraqi army is primarily composed of Shia Muslims. Mosul is primarily composed of Sunni Muslims. Even before the rise of ISIS, there had been serious Sunni protesting in Mosul against the Shia-dominated government. A number of the displaced persons I interviewed that had fled Mosul in August 2014 told me that many of the Sunnis who remained behind would be very conflicted in their loyalties in the event of an attack on Mosul by an army comprised heavily of Shia soldiers. Most Sunnis, I am told, intensely dislike how ISIS treats them but also outright hate the central government in Baghdad. If precedence is any guide, there is some reason to believe some percentage of the population will actively support ISIS if the Iraqi army attacks.
In a 2008 the Institute for the Study of War published an analysis of the security situation in Mosul. The report found that during one of the first Sunni uprisings in the city after the 2003 invasion,
“several hundred insurgents stormed police stations across the city. Instead of confronting the masked gunmen, all but 200 of Mosul’s 5,000 policemen refused to fight and melted away into the population.”
Even worse, in reference to the progenitor of ISIS, Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), the author’s wrote that Mosul’s “Sunni Arab population tolerated and even supported AQI and other insurgents and Mosul developed into a hub for AQI. This stalemate did not change very much through 2006.” There is little evidence to suggest blocks of the Sunni population in Mosul would be any less likely to support ISIS in a fight against Baghdad’s troops.
The stakes for Baghdad and Washington are huge. It is entirely possible an urban fight in Mosul could degenerate into a long, inconclusive and bloody, street-by-street siege that would leave large sections of the city in ruins. If the battle turns into a stalemate, ISIS could be strengthened, their brand internationally enhanced and the threat they represent to the United States increased. Under such conditions, the last thing the United States should do is base its hopes for retaking Mosul on the expectation that magic “U.S. adviser” beans will enable the Iraqi army to win.
Daniel L. Davis is a widely published analyst on national security and foreign policy. He retired as a Lt. Col. after twenty-one years in the U.S. Army, including four combat deployments, and is a member of the Center for Defense Information's Military Advisory Board. The views in these articles are those of the author alone and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Government. Follow him on Twitter @DanielLDavis1.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Navy/PH1(AW) Michael Larson.