The long-awaited assault on Mosul, Iraq’s second city, has started, including the participation of U.S. forces. What Americans have not yet been told is why American lives have been put at risk and other assets committed to this difficult, largely symbolic effort. U.S. military leaders have said it could take six months to complete. There isn’t any guarantee that the attack will be successful.
The motley army that is attacking Islamic State forces in Mosul, which they have held since June 2014, includes, in addition to the some 5,000 U.S. forces in country, Iraqi government forces, Shiite Muslim militias, some led by and affiliated with Iran, and Iraqi Kurdish forces.
The religious piece of the puzzle is especially complex. Mosul’s population contains elements of a number of different Middle Eastern religious but is predominantly Sunni Muslim, as is the Islamic State. The forces that seek to liberate Mosul from IS control are acting on behalf of the Baghdad government, which is largely Shiite Muslim. Sunnis in Mosul will resist the attackers on that basis, concerned at what will happen to them if Shiite government and informal forces take over, even if they are not supporters of IS.
The urban warfare that may occur is hard combat, as U.S. forces found when they were trying to take Iraqi cities during the occupation. If the attacking forces surround Mosul and shell it, the humanitarian disaster taking place in Aleppo, Syria, could be replicated in Mosul.
The Obama administration justifies U.S. participation in the battle as a manifestation of support for the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and an expression of confidence in the policy of training and equipping Iraq’s armed forces to defend their own country against the IS and other potential opponents. Perhaps more to the point is that retaking Mosul — if it works — will be to administer a defeat to IS in the region, and in general.
If IS responds to the assault on Mosul by simply exiting the city into the Iraqi and Syrian hinterland, to live and fight another day, their “defeat” won’t mean much. If, of course, the coalition of Iraqi government, Shiite militias backed by Iranians, and the Americans were to be repelled, or become bogged down by IS resistance in Mosul, the lesson will be the opposite, making this campaign a high roll of the dice.