The Obama administration and the Iraqi government are eager to retake Iraq’s second-largest city from the Islamic State, which would allow President Barack Obama to claim a major victory over the terror group before he leaves office.
But the top U.S. military brass says not so fast.
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Defense Secretary Ash Carter, considered the one hawkish voice in the president’s Cabinet, has taken to using World War II imagery while describing his determination to reclaim Mosul — calling it a prelude to an eventual assault on the self-styled caliphate’s capital in Raqqa, Syria. “I’d like to get on with that as soon as possible.”
Ali Al-Mawlawi, a spokesman for the Iraqi ambassador in Washington, told POLITICO, “Realistically, a ground offensive could begin by the summer.” He added, “Our aim is to have Mosul liberated by the end of the year.”
Yet the Pentagon’s top intelligence officer, asked whether Mosul could be taken this year, told senators that he’s not “betting on that.” And a senior defense official told POLITICO that it might be calamitous to the overall campaign to move on the city before U.S. military advisers and Iraqi, Kurdish and Sunni tribal forces are fully prepared.
“We might only get one shot at this,” said the defense official, who was describing the view of other top military leaders.
The debate over the timetable for taking Mosul — which fell to the Islamic State in June 2014 in a shocking sign of the group’s growing battlefield prowess — highlights the competing pressures of an administration seeking to craft its legacy and military professionals worried about rushing into a bloody urban war.
“There is a lot of pulling and tugging,” said Fred Kagan, head of the Critical Threats Project at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “It is not only U.S. politics driving this. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has been desperate to put up some points for a long time,” even more so in the wake of Iraqi Army’s seizure of the western city of Ramadi last month. “He had promised to take Mosul last year.”
Carter convened a high-level meeting in Brussels to browbeat other U.S. allies to do more, including designating military forces or other assistance they could contribute to the fight.
The Pentagon is already paving the way for an eventual assault on Mosul, using a stepped-up air campaign to degrade its supply lines into the city from Syria, where the group’s leaders are based.
Meanwhile, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joe Dunford is in the process of recommending how closely some of the 3,700 U.S. military advisers in Iraq will work with Iraqi and Kurdish forces in the north ahead of an all-out assault.
But any timetable is likely to outlast the Obama administration, military officials say.
Perhaps the clearest indication of the concerns about rushing the Mosul operation came from Army Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, when he appeared before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday.
Asked whether the Islamic State could be dislodged from Mosul this year, Stewart responded bluntly: “I am not betting on that, Senator. I think it will be very difficult to both isolate and conduct a clearing operation that would look like a clearing of Mosul this year.”
He also predicted the battle lines are likely to remain relatively static in Iraq over the course of the next year.
The comments reflect the traditional caution of military leaders about major battle plans but also the harsh lessons learned as the Islamic State, despite a stepped-up assault by the U.S. and its coalition partners, remains in control of large parts of both Iraq and neighboring Syria. Some top U.S. military leaders were forecasting last year that Mosul could be taken within months.
“They have to generate combat forces, which means generating the forces that are required,” said retired Army Gen. Jack Keane, who was a key adviser to U.S. commanders during the 2003-2011 war, in which U.S. forces occupied Mosul. “And they don’t have them. That is the harsh reality right now. The numbers are inadequate to take Mosul and the environment that is around it. Taking Ramadi was six months in the making. For Mosul, given the size, that is not realistic.”
Pentagon officials have estimated that as many as 30,000 local troops would be needed to wrest control of Mosul, or about three times what was needed to take Ramadi in the west.
“Unless someone can explain where those troops are going to come from,” added Kagan, “it is very difficult to see a path from where we are to an Iraqi recapture of Mosul this year. It is not impossible but it is very unlikely.”
He also said Iraqi politicians may not have “an entirely realistic image of what will be required.” He believes some of the optimism of Iraqi officials “is aimed at us. Part of what the Iraqis are trying to do is goose us” into doing more.
But in addition to the political pressure, there is also a public clamoring for more progress.
In the same hearing where Stewart appeared, top U.S. intelligence officials warned that ISIL could launch a major attack inside the United States this year.
“With the possibility of a big attack in the U.S. this year hanging like a dark cloud over the presidential race, I’m sure lots of people are at least somewhat worried,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a defense specialist at the left-leaning Brookings Institution and a longtime Pentagon adviser. “They should be.”
In Keane’s view, what is needed most to mount an assault on Mosul, a largely Sunni Muslim city, is more Iraqi forces, greater U.S. military involvement, as well as additional Sunni tribal fighters.
“I think there should be more advisers and trainers there to incentivize the Iraqis to get the numbers up,” he said. “The same is true of the Sunni tribal forces. Holding Mosul is just as important as taking it. We cannot have the Iraqi Army, largely Shia, retake Mosul and expect to hold it.”
Kagan also warned about the possible role of Shia militias backed by Iran, which he fears could move on Mosul first.
“That would be a real disaster.”