I want to just add a strategic note to Tom’ post from earlier today. There are actually several very good strategic reasons to publicize the upcoming Mosul campaign even as the official start day is not announced. The first is to actually use the Information(al) element of National Power to pressure ISIL to abandon Mosul rather than suffer the types of battlefield defeat that it did in Ramadi and Fallujah in Iraq and in parts of Syria where the US led Coalition is attriting ISIL’s hold on actual territory. One of the first positive effects we’re trying to achieve is to get a team of engineers, under Coalition protection, on site to shore up at the Mosul Dam full time before the rainy season starts as we move into Autumn. The sooner, and the easier it is to get the engineers on site full time the better. If the Mosul Dam goes, there is going to be a tremendous complication added to the Coalition’s efforts in the region in terms of having to conduct humanitarian assistance and disaster management coupled with an increased flow of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) within Iraq and the impact on Iraqi agriculture, which is still not back to what it was prior to the 2003 invasion. This will be much easier if we don’t have to fight our way to the dam or if we don’t have to worry about ISIL blowing the damn to cover their retreat and complicate Coalition operations.
The second reason to use the publicity about an impending attack, to leverage Information Power, to achieve the theater strategic objective is to ramp up the PSYOPS component of the potential attack. ISIL’s leadership is not stupid – they know an attack is coming to dig them out of Mosul. As a result they have to get their fighters on site in position and ready to fight. Sitting, day in and day out, waiting for an attack to come that doesn’t occur that day, even when everyone knows that the attack is, eventually, going to happen, saps morale. You can only keep troops mentally focused for an upcoming fight for a limited amount of time before they start to loose their focus. Every day that we make clear that the fight is going to come, that the force applied will be overwhelming for the ISIL fighters trying to hold the city, and nothing happens that day, is a day that ISIL’s fighters have spent mental focus waiting for an attack that will, but has not yet, come.
It is also important to leverage this psychological pressure created by knowing the fight is coming, but not when, to try to avoid what has happened in the campaigns to liberate Fallujah and Ramadi: ISIL’s almost complete destruction of these cities, the creation of tens of thousands of new IDPs and refugees, and the humanitarian crises that result. There wasn’t a lot left of Ramadi after its liberation as one of the Iraqi Special Forces officers stated after ISIL had been pushed out:
“All they leave is rubble,” pronounced Maj. Mohammed Hussein, whose counterterrorism corps was one of a initial to pierce into Ramadi. “You can’t do anything with rubble.”
As a result of what we’ve learned from the campaigns to liberate Fallujah and Ramadi, the less actual fighting that has to take place to retake Mosul the better it will be for the city and its residents. So anything we can do to make it harder for ISIL to actually fight works to our advantage.
There are also two very important reasons rooted within Iraq’s socio-cultural context. The first is that by making it clear that Coalition backed and supported Iraqi regular and irregular forces are going to bring overwhelming force to liberate Mosul, we are also leveraging Information Power to keep our Iraqi allies focused on their upcoming task. A repeated problem that was encountered by US and Coalition Forces going back to 2004 was that it was often hard to get the Iraqis to show up, and if they did show up to actually fight. There were several reasons for this. For instance, in Anbar Province in 2005-2006 we had lined up Sunni tribal fighters to be trained to fight with Coalition Forces against al Qaeda in Iraq. However, there was a logistical delay getting these local forces to the training site. During that delay their villages had been hit by al Qaeda in Iraq and as a result our potential new local allies decided they had to go home and protect their kin. As a result we lost an opportunity to build a more cohesive, local irregular force to work with throughout the region.
At other times we’ve spent a lot of time and money working with and training Iraqi Security Forces who, while they did fine in practice, would balk when the time came for them to apply force for real. I watched this personally one week in 2008 when I was working with my brigade’s Military Training Team (MiTT). Reports came in the night we arrived to embed with the MiTT of an attack on some Iraqis. The MiTT leader tried to get the Iraqi Army battalion commander he was working with to respond, but he wouldn’t. The next morning, however, we quickly had to gear up and get on the road to follow this Iraqi Army battalion as they rushed from their base to the middle of nowhere to see what had happened – 14 hours after the attack was reported. What you’re seeing in the US led Coalition’s publicizing the upcoming campaign to liberate Mosul is an attempt to use the other edge of Information Power to keep our Iraqi allies focused and ensure that when the day comes to begin that offensive they are ready and able to do so. I can not emphasize enough the damage that Saddam Hussein’s tyrannical government did to Iraqi confidence in their ability to accomplish things as Iraqis, especially military operations. A great deal of our partnering, advising, training, and assisting has been not just teaching the how of soldiering or policing, but also the less tangible and harder to inculcate why to do so – including building morale and esprit de corps.
Finally, the last reason to publicize the upcoming campaign to liberate Mosul is related to the need to keep the Iraqi Security Forces and irregular forces on actually going through with the campaign. As you can see in the map images below, Mosul is very close to the areas that are currently part of the autonomous areas of Iraqi Kurdistan (the Kurdish Autonomous Area). And Mosul is an ethnically mixed city – it has both Sunni Arabs and (Sunni) Kurds living together in proximity. If you look at Map 1, you can see where the Iraqi Kurds were able to extend their lines by the end of 2013/beginning of 2014.
(Map 1: Areas Under Kurdish Control 2013)
As you can see in Map 1, by the late Winter of 2014 the Iraqi Kurds had extended their lines beyond Iraqi Kurdistan to the areas of Iraq that the Iraqi Kurds have claimed, and want added to Iraqi Kurdistan. Most important among these is the city and province of Kirkuk, but Mosul is also historically important for the Iraqi Kurds. Map 2, below, shows the distribution of Iraqi Kurds as an ethnic group in Northeastern Iraq and the boundaries of Iraqi Kurdistan.
(Map 2: Ethnic-Religious Map of Iraq)
Mosul and Tikrit are contested areas between Iraq’s Arabs and Kurds. In 2008 I was told repeatedly by both Sunni and Shi’a tribal and religious leaders (sheikhs and imams) across Central Iraq that the one thing that would definitely make Iraq’s Sunni and Shi’a Arabs cooperate was if the Iraqi Kurds took Kirkuk. Now this was in the 2008 context as opposed to the 2013-2014 context of the Iraqi Peshmerga fighting against ISIL and establishing their forward lines at the farthest points out from Iraqi Kurdistan that they could hold territory against ISIL. However, the Government of Iraq is dominated by Arabs not Kurds. As are the Iraqi Security Forces, though a significant portion of the Iraqi Army is made up of Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga. So here too we are trying to leverage Information Power to keep the pressure on the Government of Iraq and the Iraqi Security Forces to go and liberate a city that is ethnically mixed and that is contested between Iraqi Arabs and Kurds. The intention here is to ensure that Iraqi Arab regular and irregular forces show up and fight to liberate a city that may wind up under Kurdish control in the future. This is not necessarily an easy task, so leveraging Information Power to ensure the campaign actually happens is important.
It is this strategic nuance of National Power (Diplomatic, Information, Military, and Economic/the DIME), and how to leverage it that neither Donald Trump nor his advisors seem to understand. Moreover, it demonstrates a lack of understand of the theater strategic contexts in which US and Coalition Forces are working in Iraq. We already have a real world/real time example of what happens when the strategic regional context is not taken into before a major operation is undertaken in the Levant: the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. While the element of surprise may be tactically important, the strategic ability to leverage Information Power to one’s advantage is also a very important tool that should be used whenever possible.