Is the Battle for Mosul Doomed?

Read Scott Horton's new book Fool's Errand: Time to End the War in Afghanistan

Since the battle to retake Mosul began in mid-October, Iraqi and coalition spokesmen have touted the significant number of villages retaken around the periphery of Mosul by the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), and the fact that they reportedly recaptured Mosul’s al-Salam hospital, barely a mile from the Tigris. Yet an examination of the battlefield reveals that from the perspective of ISIS, it could be argued that the fight is going better than expected. Such a belief is not without substance.

Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi claimed last week that he was very pleased with his troops’ progress. “We have seen the whole organization collapsing in terms of standing in the face of our own armed forces,” he said, adding that the “success of liberating a huge area indicates that Daesh does not have the gut[s]” to stand and fight. Yet the number of villages and square kilometers of land retaken tells only part of the story, and may be deceptive by itself.

Mosul is a city with a population close to two million. ISIS is alleged to have begun the battle with no more than ten thousand fighters. Unless they are militarily inept—which doesn’t appear to be the case—they never planned to even attempt to hold the entire city from the coalition, so the rapid capture of scores of villages should not surprise anyone. The only plan that ever made any sense from a military perspective was to conduct a fighting withdrawal to a prearranged and secure position deep within Mosul.

Using this scheme, they would slowly collapse the extended security zone around Mosul, which they had established over the preceding two years, exacting as high of a casualty rate as possible on the attackers. ISIS would fight the ISF but not become decisively engaged, enabling its fighters to effectively withdraw to the next sequential line of defense. They would continue this collapsing process until they arrived at the designated no-penetration line—or die-in-place line—which appears to be on the eastern side of the Tigris. An analysis of their current behavior indicates they will eventually cede the western half of the city and make their stand on the eastern side.

Read the rest at the National Interest.

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Read Scott Horton's new book Fool's Errand: Time to End the War in Afghanistan