In late 2001, when initial military operations in Afghanistan produced surprising successes, the opening skit on Saturday Night Live was a send-up of the daily press conference given by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Actor Darrell Hammond made a perfect Rummy, complete with rimless spectacles and prune-face squint. But the real target of the sketch was the inanity of the media.
“Mr. Secretary, do you plan to halt bombing during Ramadan?”
“My answer would be . . . I’m not going to tell you. Yes?”
Under the command of Barack Obama, the traditional idea that “loose lips sink ships” has gone out of fashion. In mid-February, anonymous officials from U.S. Central Command told reporters of a coming assault to wrest Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, from the grip of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. ISIS has held Mosul, which had nearly two million residents, since June 2014.
The announcement was a surprise to new defense secretary Ashton Carter and to the White House. It was also disturbing to many in Congress; senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham complained to the president about the leak of the detailed campaign plan, writing: “Never in our memory can we recall an instance in which our military has knowingly briefed our war plans to our enemies.”
The leak was also a shock to Iraqis. While the retaking of Mosul has long been a topic of conversation in Baghdad, and the government of Haider al-Abadi is said to be eager to take the offensive as soon as possible, to have the Americans put a date on the calendar—the CENTCOM briefing said the attacks would begin in April or May—is to write a check the Iraqis may not be able to cash. And the stakes, both politically and militarily, for the Obama administration as well as Abadi, could hardly be greater.
The response of the Kurdish leadership to the leak is illustrative. Asked by NPR if the Iraqi Army was ready to undertake the Mosul assault, Masrour Barzani, head of the Kurdish national security council, said, “I wish I could tell you they are ready, but they are not.” He continued,
Let’s not forget that for 10 years the Iraqi Army was trained and supported, and unfortunately they did not last for a long time fighting ISIS. Especially in Mosul [last spring]. Five Iraqi divisions and one federal police division were completely destroyed or abandoned their posts. And let’s also not forget that fighting ISIS with new recruits is not that easy. So you have to have combat-hardened forces.
Even discounting Kurdish special pleading from this assessment, Barzani’s points are well taken. Looked at from a distance—and one can never see Iraq too clearly from Washington—military failure in Mosul is very much an option.
Any assessment of the Mosul campaign’s prospects must begin by remembering some of the basic facts about the city. It’s physically big—roughly the size of Washington, D.C., inside the Beltway—as well as populous, making it very difficult urban terrain. The city’s also split more or less in half by the Tigris River, which creates a formidable line of defense.
In particular, the river forms a defense of the southwest section of the city, which is the stronghold of the Sunni population. Sunnis are a 70-percent majority of the population; Kurds account for about 25 percent; and the remaining 5 percent includes a congeries of minorities—but very, very few Shiite Iraqis. Mosul was once the retirement community for Saddam Hussein’s officer corps—tens of thousands of them. It was the nucleus of Baathist and then broader Sunni resistance to the Shiite-led governments installed in Baghdad after the 2003 invasion and under former prime minister Nuri al-Maliki. It was also a hotbed of activity for Abu Musab al Zarqawi’s Al Qaeda in Iraq, a precursor to ISIS.
The Kurds want little to do with the fight for this part of Mosul. They’ve secured the Kurdish parts of the eastern city and have had to absorb hundreds of thousands of refugees from Mosul into Kurdistan proper. “[Kurdish] Peshmerga [militia] will not enter alone,” says Barzani. Not only would this create “some political sensitivity,” he admits, but he’s also aware of the limitations of the pesh, who lack the strength, weaponry, and logistics for such a mission.