Shortly after the fall of Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, to the Islamic State in June 2014, a delegation of senior officials from Iraqi Kurdistan visited Washington with a troubling question: From where, they asked, would the force come to retake the city? The Iraqi army was too shattered, and the Kurds were too weak, and outside powers such as Turkey and the United States were unwilling to commit ground forces.
A lot has happened in the nearly two years since then. Among other things, the Obama administration has retrained nearly 20,000 Iraqi troops, dispatched some 5,000 U.S. trainers, Marines and special operationsforces to the area, and launched more than 11,000 combat air sorties against Islamic State targets. Yet when another senior Kurdish delegation circulated through Washington last week, their question about Mosul was unchanged:
Who is going to do this?
“We heard a plan is close to being drawn up” for retaking the city, said Qubad Talabani, deputy prime minister of the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq, who recently met in Baghdad with Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and the senior U.S. commander in the theater, Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland. “But we got a sense there are gaping holes in that plan.”
U.S. officials have lately been talking up what they say has been the growing momentum of the war against the Islamic State. They say President Obama, who has repeatedly called it his top priority, has asked for an “acceleration” of the campaign.
To listen to the Kurds, however, is to appreciate the towering obstacles that still must be overcome before the two most important cities held by the jihadists, Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria, can be retaken.
Missing is not just an adequate number of forces, but also funding, political leadership and that most elusive of goods in the Middle East: a workable vision of what happens the day after the bad guys are dispatched.
It doesn’t help that Iraq is suffering through an economic and fiscal crisis caused by the drop in oil prices and yet another political emergency in Baghdad, where a besieged Abadi has been trying without success to introduce a new cabinet. Those upheavals have left Kurdistan, an autonomous region, broke: Its fighters, the peshmerga, have not been paid in three months. Talabani was in Washington in part to appeal for U.S. financial aid, without which the Kurdish forces probably could not be mobilized for a Mosul offensive. The Kurds asked for $200 million a month; the Pentagon suggested $50 million.
No White House decision on funding the Kurds has been made. Even if the money is forthcoming, the question remains: Who will conduct the street-by-street combat Mosul will require? The terrorists have built defensive berms across the city, seeded mines and IEDs and, the Kurds say, loaded mustard gas into artillery shells. An assaulting force might confront the chemical attacks that U.S. troops expected but never faced in 2003.
Iraqi army forces quickly faltered last month when they tried to begin clearing operations near the city of Makhmour, about 70 miles south of Mosul. That’s when 200 U.S. Marines were secretly sent to the area to establish a “fire base” with artillery. Even with that support, the Iraqis have managed to take only a handful of villages. “We all know the Iraqi army is not ready yet,” Falah Bakir, Kurdistan’s chief of foreign relations, told a group of Post journalists.
The Pentagon is now talking about establishing more fire bases on the way to Mosul, and sources say hundreds more special operations forces and other troops may be deployed as the campaign unfolds. Commanders hope that thousands of Sunni tribesmen being trained as security forces can be used to secure the liberated city. But that still raises the question of whether Iraqi Shiite militias backed by Iran will be allowed to join the assault, as they are pressing to do. If so, they may plunge into sectarian bloodletting with the Sunni population.
Such complexities probably explain why Abadi and MacFarland have yet to show a completed campaign plan to the Kurds. Even more remote is a strategy for postwar governance in Mosul and other Sunni-populated areas that would supplant the Islamic State with something the local population would support.
All of this points to a stark bottom line: There will be no liberation of Mosul in 2016. The Islamic State will outlive the U.S. administration whose lapses in Syria and Iraq helped to create it.
It will be the ugliest piece of Barack Obama’s legacy.
Jackson Diehl is deputy editorial page editor of The Washington Post.