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The Battle for Mosul and the Resulting Balloon Effect

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By Morgan Deane:

In fighting the insurgency ten years ago, the US complained of a water balloon effect. American military forces in Iraq would conduct a counterinsurgency campaign in one area, which would kill many terrorists, but also cause many to flee. In effect, they would squeeze the terrorists in one section of the country, and like water they would simply bulge into another area. The operation in Mosul might have a similar transnational effect, as squeezing the terrorists in Iraq leads to an influx around the world.  This has national security considerations for many in South and South East Asia, but it also has implications for the United States and Europe in their fight against terrorism.

Mosul fell to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in 2014. After many years of shaping operations in such places as Ramadi in Anbar province, but also around Mosul itself, and with extensive American assistance the Iraqis have finally started the operation to retake the city. Iraqi forces are advancing slowly toward the city in addition to nearby villages and Mosul’s main suburbs.

But ISIS forces are not tacitly awaiting their fate. They have forced several operational pauses on Iraqi forces and recently counter-attacked in the Kurdish city of Kirkuk. They did not cause a great deal of casualties and only damaged a few symbolic buildings and a power station, but the strike underscores their ability to conduct large spectacular attacks. These are classic tactics that ISIS used in 2015.  The attack on Kirkuk was an attempt to draw the Kurdish forces away from Mosul, weaken a flank attack from those forces, and further break down the coalition between Kurdish military, Sunni military, Shia militia and American advisors. All of which will enhance the already stubborn defense around Mosul.

Many American policy makers think a victory is a foregone conclusion, but the stiff defense in Mosul and the continuing spectacular attacks suggest a need for caution. The steady operations and methodical approach by Iraqi security forces help to negate the typical advantage of defenders that use the dense urban environment to attack advancing forces from unexpected angles.  There is an even greater danger in Mosul because of the use of tunnels and bridge bombs by ISIS, on top of their continuing ability to launch grand terrorist attacks such as the one seen in Kirkuk.

Even though the battle continues, the Iraqi forces and their American air power need to properly plan for the end of the battle. American forces were criticized earlier for not striking columns of moving ISIS forces, and it’s expected that many will flee at the end of the this battle. The ISIS tunnels are used for defense, but also for ways to escape the city.  The American’s have pre-targeted the routes in and out of the city. Yet still, American air strikes will not be able to hit all of the terrorists fleeing.

There is a mix of 8,000 fighters in and around Mosul with hundreds coming from South Malaysia and broader South East Asia. Another 500 are from Pakistan and Afghanistan.  Intelligence services from around the world are worried about the sudden influx of fighters to their country as a result of ISIS fighters fleeing Mosul. Malaysia is cooperating with intelligence agencies and tightening screening at airports and along their borders to make sure that none of the fighters travel to their country. Indonesia has a large Muslim population, and they expect an “influx” of fighters to try and enter as a result. Pakistan has its own problem with home grown terrorists, and their leaders are worried that fringe groups like Lashkar-e-Tayiba (LT) will receive more strength.

Pakistan and these countries have reason to be worried, as the region saw a similar trend after US actions in Afghanistan post 9/11. Before this, the influx of fighters in Afghanistan during the 1980s resulted in experienced terrorists returning home.  This, on top of the water balloon trend noticed by American forces when they fought the early 2000s insurgency.   The greatest danger to world leaders is that the arriving fighters will use their experience and skill sets to become leaders and recruiters for local insurgents and terrorists.  And that they will form some kind of “alumni network” to make both national and transnational threats even greater. These skill sets include the knowledge of cyber-attacks and armed attacks on soft targets. Examples include an attacker who threw a grenade into a Malaysian night club. The US and France have seen similar attacks with people mowing down bystanders with a dump truck in Nice, and a rifle attack at a San Bernardino Christmas party.  In addition to their tactical and technical expertise, they can radicalize their neighbors. It is one thing for an angry person to discuss how much he or she hates the government, sin, or what seems like insidious Western influence, but it is quite another to make suicidal attacks on bars, nightclubs, and tourist destinations frequented by their own neighbors.

The water balloon effect is real. In fighting the insurgency ten years ago, the US complained about it. It was a noticeable trend in South and South East Asia after 9/11 and after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. There is a trend in American politics to complain about wars “over there” that do not affect matters at home, and seem more like imperialistic and wasteful adventures rather than a national security need. The water balloon effect is one reason, among many, why crises abroad matter here at home.  There is not a great chance that these fighters will follow the balloon effect to America. But they can travel to countries that offer easy flights to America. In addition, the fighting creates refugees who are coming to Europe and America. The recent attacks in Paris for example, included terrorists with refugee passports.  In short, the battle for Mosul is an important victory. But it is just as important to make sure the fleeing fighters do not spread terrorism to their home countries.

Morgan Deane is an OpsLens Contributor and a former U.S. Marine Corps infantry rifleman.  Deane also served in the National Guard as an Intelligence Analyst.

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