On 24 June 2014, a few hundred DAESH troops entered Iraq’s second largest city Mosul. By the end of the day they had forced the withdrawal of tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers and taken over the city of around two million.
Five days later DAESH’s self-appointed leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, announced the formation of a new caliphate – a successor to that Atatürk had declared was over just over 90 years previously in March 1924.
Until then, the West had been barely aware of DAESH. As his opponents have never let us forget, the quality of Obama’s intelligence on the group was such that he famously referred to them as the “JV [Junior ‘Varsity] team.” Over the next few weeks they spread through northern and western Iraq like a virulent cancer, taking over cities, towns, and villages at will until they were only a few kilometres from the capital Baghdad.
The Iraqi army was completely ineffectual. Before they left in 2011 the United States military had left a well-trained officer corps in place who were capable of carrying on the development of the army. However, the political machinations of then prime minister Nouri al-Maliki meant that these soldiers were almost entirely gone by 2014. They had been replaced by political appointees, many of whom had absolutely no military background. Their chief qualification was devotion to al-Maliki.
As a result, the army was poorly trained and had absolutely no loyalty to their commanders. Further, the government frequently failed to pay or sometimes even feed them, especially if they were Sunni or Kurd. The soldiers of DAESH, on the other hand, were well-trained and mostly committed. Those who had joined because, as Sunnis and former members of the Ba’ath Party of Saddam Hussein they had no place in the new regime and no other way to feed their families, were at least paid regularly. (They received the equivalent of around US$400 per month. However, DAESH’s loss of territory, income sources, and other setbacks in recent months has seen that reduced to around US$100 per month, if they are paid at all.)
Initially, DAESH received a great deal of support from the people of Mosul. They are largely Sunni and the Shi’ite regime of al-Maliki, supported by Iran, had made life very difficult for them. Being Sunni made them potential enemies of the state in his eyes. The city was full of military checkpoints, for example, which made just getting around very difficult. Many thought a Sunni regime would be an improvement.
It wasn’t long though before the people of Mosul began to hate life under the caliphate. Its rule was, as we all know now, brutal in the extreme. In the West we saw the videos of aid workers and other captured Westerners being beheaded, drowned and burned to death with increasing brutality and regularity.
It was no better for the citizens of the caliphate. Being gay, for example, was never easy in Iraq, but DAESH punished their “crime” of existing by throwing them off a building. If they survived the fall, they were beaten or stoned to death. Cigarette smoking was punished by cutting off hands. The contents of all banks was stolen. If DAESH decided your house, apartment building, or hotel was a good place to house their soldiers, they simply took it. In fact one of their recruitment inducements was the luxury accommodation available to soldiers of the caliphate. Women, of course, were forced into the all-enveloping black bag that is the burqa and were beaten if an ankle, wrist, or strand of hair made its way into public view.
It wasn’t long before the citizens of Mosul were rebelling. When Nouri al-Maliki lost the election in September 2014 and his place was taken by Haider al-Abadi, a gradual improvement in relationships occurred both within Iraq and with the West. Al-Abadi maintained strong ties with Iran and remained fearful of Kurdish strength, but he also built bridges to the Sunni community and recognized he wasn’t getting his country back without Western, particularly US, help.
Al-Abadi invited countries with good reputations for the quality of their military to help retrain his army. The biggest contingent is, of course, the United States, but there are several others involved, including New Zealand. Their work over the last two years is now bearing fruit in that the Iraqi army is becoming a disciplined and capable force.
In a number of smaller battles it has now proved itself able not only to face DAESH without running away, but to defeat them. At the end of last year they launched an offensive to re-take Anbar province from DAESH. After a difficult campaign they liberated the city of Ramadi and they have since re-taken the entire province. Importantly, this was achieved with Sunni and Shi’a soldiers fighting together, with Western nations acting only in an advisory capacity on the ground. However, the United States in particular provided massive air cover for the Iraqi military, without which their success would not have been possible. This battle also gave the Iraqi military valuable experience in fighting in an urban setting which they would need for the much bigger task of liberating Mosul.
Along with the improved capacity of the military, the more inclusive national government has an increasing number of allies within Mosul. There are three main aspects to this:
1. The city’s population is down about half to an estimated 700,000 to one million. Many of those who have managed to leave the city have provided valuable information about what’s happening there, so the military is receiving an ongoing picture of what’s happening within the city.
2. There are many still within Mosul who are also providing intelligence. The information from these people is particularly valuable because it is current and they can often see what they are referring to during their calls out. This is extremely dangerous work. Recognizing the importance of this type of intelligence to their enemy, DAESH has begun to execute anyone they find with a cell phone on the assumption they are using it to contact those who oppose them.
3. There is also a strong resistance movement within Mosul itself. The individual groups are mostly unknown to each other, but are sometimes coordinated from outside the city. They have been carrying out hit and run attacks against DAESH targets on a regular basis for some time. The military has managed to provide many of these groups with weapons, ammunition, and other ordinance.
Thus, at dawn on Monday morning Mosul time, prime minister al-Abadi announced that the battle to take Mosul back from DAESH had begun. Former prime minister al-Maliki had said in June 2014 that this would happen within a month. Even if his army had been capable of such a campaign at the time, it is doubtful they would have followed his lead. Two years on, the position is very different. It will take at least weeks and probably months to achieve their goal, but it will happen.
The US and other members of the Obama coalition – called the “Combined Joint Task Force” are providing crucial air support, but there are no Western troops on the ground except in an advisory capacity. The ground troops are bolstered by the Iranian military, Iraqi milita groups, and the Kurdish Peshmerga. However, prime minister al-Abadi has announced that only official Iraqi military and police forces will actually enter the city itself. This is to allay some of the fears that Iranian (and thus Shi’a) militias will treat Sunnis badly, and also that the Kurds will dominate the city over other Sunnis.
There are some controversial aspects to this push. Turkey in particular is very unhappy There are two main reasons for the controversy:
1. Turkey believes that a majority of the hundreds of thousands of refugees this military operation could create, especially if it takes an extended period, will end up in Turkey and they will have to pay for them.
2. The Peshmerga (Kurdish army) have finally been given modern weapons directly. For the last two years the Peshmerga have without doubt been the best and most consistent fighters against DAESH. However, they’ve been doing it with antiquated weapons, sometimes even of World War I vintage.
Several members of the Combined Joint Task Force, especially the US, had given weapons to the Peshmerga through the official channel of the Iraqi government. Those weapons though were not passed on. In fact, tens of millions of dollars worth ended up in the hands of DAESH due to the several occasions the Iraqi army ran away rather than fight, abandoning all their weapons and equipment.
The central government in Iraq don’t want the Kurds to have the weapons because they are fearful they will eventually be used against them in the creation of an independent Kurdish state. The Turks are quite fearful that the weapons will find their way into the hands of the PKK, a Kurdish terrorist group that frequently carries out attacks within Turkey.
Both of these fears are valid in my opinion. The developed world doesn’t have that great a record when it comes to helping out with refugees, though in this case the New Zealand government at least has pledged $1 million towards the support of the refugees, and I’ve no doubt other governments have done the same. However, it is likely that the Turkey will shoulder a large part of the burden,
Also, the PKK probably will get hold of some of the weapons sent to the Kurds. However, there might be less of a problem with Kurdish terrorists if Turkey treated the Kurds a bit better. There is a lot of institutional and other racism against the Kurds in Turkey, and if they’d done a better job of addressing that they might not have such an issue. That is not, of course, any justification for terrorism or any other form of violence.
By the end of the first day the Iraqi government was reporting that they had moved a significant distance along the main road to Mosul, resulting in heavy loss of life and equipment to DAESH. There were more than a dozen DAESH suicide bombers; some emerged from the tunnels they have spent two years building and others drove vehicles. It seems none got close enough to do much damage to the alliance opposing them. In addition, the Peshmerga reports they have cleared nine villages near Mosul.
The second day saw the Joint Task Force take more ground, and the good progress continued on the third as well. General Joseph L Votel of the United States Department of Defense reports:
What I can report to you is that [the battle] is on track with the plan. In some areas, we are right where we expected to be, [and] in other areas we are a little bit ahead of where we expected to be.
The general notes that DAESH has built up a series of “very elaborate” defences in the two years they have occupied Mosul and it will take time to safely negotiate them. He also points out the importance of keeping up pressure on DAESH in other theatres, and that operations in Syria, for example, are ongoing.
The strategy has been to try to present the Islamic State with as many dilemmas as we possibly can.
Crucially, the United States seems to have learned from the errors they have made in the country in the past. The Department of Defense report on Votel’s statement says:
Votel also looked beyond the immediate issues of the day, saying that the United States needs to look at its long-term goals in the region and, specifically, how to work better with partners.
I find that encouraging, and I hope they follow through on that. In the past the way the United States has operated has done at least as much harm as good. They are always going to be in a difficult position – if they don’t intervene they will be criticized for not caring, and if they do they will be accused of imperialism. If they work well with those on the region though, they can avoid those two options and find a middle way. Part of it’s about not needing to be seen as in charge and the hero, which is something Obama has learned to do after a less than stellar beginning. If the reality matches the rhetoric, this could establish a new and positive collaboration between East and West.
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Thanks Heather for a concise summary of the situation. I now have a much clearer understanding of what’s going on in the area. As someone who doesn’t buy newspapers, and finds the nightly TV news short on insight, I rely on people like you, and your commenters, to keep me informed.
Nice analysis, Heather. As usual, well written and quite readable. Thank you.
Excellent article Heather.
Always concise accurate and non partisan.
Hope you are well.
Impressive *Darth Vader voice?* Another excellent article. I can imagine the time it takes to put something like this together. Let me second all three of the comments above.
Trump didn’t seem too impressed with the US involvement in Mosul last night. Of course, even if Trump were not willfully ignorant of foreign affairs, diplomacy and military use, he would have shamelessly played it the same way because Art Of The Ste . . . uh, Deal. All is fair, so Buyer Beware.
Looking forward to your article on last night’s debate.
Thanks so much everybody. I greatly appreciate your kind words. 🙂
Here’s an excellent post from Fareed Zakaria on the retaking of Mosul that I highly recommend: