Military and Police

The Iraqi Army’s Coalition Operation to Reclaim Mosul: A Slow and Bloody Slog

By Mike Furlong:

It has been nine weeks since the Iraqi Military Coalition began its assault on October 17, 2016 to reclaim Mosul, Iraq, from the Islamic State (ISIS) radical Islamic terrorists. Progress was relatively quick during the first few weeks when the two-pronged attack was clearing the villages and towns just outside of Mosul’s so-called city limits. During the past month or so, only a few blocks of enduring penetration into the Mosul city limits have been achieved.

This limited military penetration has been gained with significant casualties to the Iraqi Military Coalition (IMC). Although the Iraqi government does not publicly track casualties, UN observers conservatively claim that Coalition forces have suffered approximately 2,000 troops killed in action. That number does not include the wounded troops or civilian casualties inside Mosul. On top of all that, there are 80,000 to 100,00 internally displaced Mosul residents.

As reported previously, the IMC includes Iraqi Army conventional forces, Iraq’s elite First Special Operations Brigade (the Golden Brigade), Iraqi Shiite militias, Iranian Revolutionary Guard elements, Shiite Popular Mobilization Units (militia), Kurdish Peshmerga forces, and “advisers, trainers, and support” from American, French, British, and possibly Australian special forces, as well as scores of strike aircraft, helicopter gunships, and unmanned aerial vehicles (drones).

Additionally, the Iranian Popular Mobilization Units, a para-military force, closed the “Raqqa, Syria, to Mosul, Iraq, highway” on November 23, 2016, according to multiple media sources. This is ISIS headquarters’ main supply route to the ISIS fighters defending Mosul. In effect, the ISIS fighters in Mosul are now encircled.

Depending on what source you consult, there are about 80,000 to 100,000 IMC troops fighting against 5,000 to 8,000 ISIS “radical Islamic terrorists” defending Mosul. Even the lowest correlation of forces estimate would give the Iraqi Coalition a 10-to-1 advantage in relative combat power. U.S. military doctrine calls for at least a 3-to-1 advantage in combat power before attacking an entrenched enemy.

So, the preliminary questions are: Why is the Iraqi Coalition’s progress so slow and its casualties so high? How can 8,000 (or fewer) terrorists hold Mosul against 80,000 or more trained and well-armed IMC forces? What is wrong with the IMC’s attack plan?

Well, because Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abadi had a very public goal of reclaiming Mosul by the end of 2016, he called for a complete review of the war plan and its progress. It was reported by KUNA (Kuwait News Agency; Irbil; Dec. 18, 2016) that PM Abadi met secretly with his key military commanders in a town called Hammam al-Alil (about 10 miles south of Mosul) on December 13, 2016. It is unknown whether or not U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter attended this meeting; however, Secretary Carter was photographed in surprise meetings on December 11, 2016, at Qayara Air Force Base, just 40 miles south of Hammam al-Alil.

Secretary Carter met with Lt. General Stephen Townsend, the combined-joint task force commander of Operation Inherent Resolve. Lt. General Townsend—also the commander of the U.S. Army’s XVIII Airborne Corps at Fort Bragg, N.C.—is responsible for all U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria and serves as the direct liaison with the IMC.

U.S. Special Operations forces are advising and assisting IMC Forces, to include forward fighting forces assaulting ISIS in Mosul. The 6,000 U.S. troops in Iraq are providing training, equipment, intelligence gathering, logistics support, medical support, and fire support from air and ground platforms (artillery). The majority of the U.S. conventional military support is being provided by the Third Brigade Combat Team of the 82nd Airborne Division.

According to KUNA, a summary of PM Abadi’s war plan review meeting on December 13, 2016 was to reinforce Iraq’s elite Golden Brigade special operations forces with special police forces to better isolate ISIS snipers and suicide car-bombers, close ISIS’ network of tunnels under Mosul, and make better use of Apache helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles. PM Abadi emphasized the need to keep civilian casualties and infrastructure damage to a minimum.

I will offer some experienced, constructive insight regarding this battle for consideration. Many of my comments will address intangible factors that cannot be quantified within the traditional “battlefield calculus.”

I do not intend to unfairly criticize the IMC’s effort; I am not there on the ground suffering through this deadly fight. There are already far too many theoretical critics, politicians, and journalists who do not fully appreciate the horrors of war—especially for those who are directly in the fight.

Because of the size limitations of this article, I will break my insights and considerations into the following outline: first, provide a broad outline of my considerations in the balance of this article; second, provide a more detailed account regarding the ISIS part of the equation in a second follow-up article; and third, provide a more detailed account of the IMC part of the equation in a third article.

Broadly speaking, I will cover, among other things, these factors for consideration in assessing the ISIS fighters:

  • Early warning/preparation time afforded ISIS to fortify their defensive positions in Mosul, stockpiling food, water, and arms;
  • Disregard for the safety of the Mosul civilian population (estimated between 200,000 to 500,000 people), which ISIS uses as a combat multiplier, either as human shields or slave labor for their war effort;
  • Asymmetric tactics to nullify the IMC’s superior firepower (e.g., trenches of oil emitting dense smoke to obscure IMC’s air strikes, tanks, artillery, etc.);
  • First-rate black market supply, production, and stockpiles of improvised explosive devices, rockets, and mortar shells in the tunnels under Mosul;
  • Suicide car-bomb attacks; and
  • Intangibles, such as psychological operations, information operations, and “the will to fight until death.”

Broadly writing, I will cover, among other things, these factors for consideration in assessing the IMC forces:

  • IMC operational strategy and courses of action and derivatives (e.g., starve ISIS with the encirclement);
  • Combatting ISIS’ asymmetric tactics;
  • Employing a more “functional defeat” approach to attacking ISIS (e.g., communications, arms, logistics, intelligence collection, etc.);
  • Enhancing IMC intelligence collection inside Mosul;
  • Enhancing command and control and integration of IMC forces across the multiple ethnic groups (e.g., Iraqi Sunnis and Shiites, Kurds, Iranians, etc.);
  • Better use of perception management, psychological operations, deception, and information operations against ISIS; and
  • Enhancing IMC’s will and incentive to fight harder by assuming slightly more calculated risks (e.g., “Thunder Runs with M-1 Tanks,” etc.).

This preliminary article can serve as a launching point for a more comprehensive dialogue between the many subject matter experts among OpsLens’ readership. I am but one humble voice trying to jump-start a constructive dialogue. Hopefully, our readership can generate creative “TTPs” (tactics, techniques, and procedures) for the aforementioned bullets.

Mike Furlong is a Senior OpsLens Contributor, career Army Infantry Officer, Battalion Task Force Commander, Combat Veteran, and Defense Intelligence Senior Executive Service, Retired.

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