The Reclaiming of Mosul: 2016 Operational Update

By Mike Furlong:

We offer our readership a summary update on the Iraqi Military Coalition’s (IMC) nearly 11-week offensive operation to reclaim the city of Mosul, Iraq, from the Islamic State’s (ISIS) radical Islamic fighters. The IMC’s assault on ISIS into the eastern side of Mosul began on October 17, 2016. As reported by several media sources, it was restarted on December 29 after a month-long IMC “operational pause.”

As previously reported, the IMC has approximately 80,000 troops encircling Mosul that are fighting against approximately 8,000 entrenched ISIS radical Islamic terrorists. By various media accounts, 500,000+ Mosul civilians (largely of the Sunni Muslim sect) are trapped inside Mosul as “slave labor and human shields” for the ISIS terrorists.

The US military contribution to the IMC numbers about 6,000 troops. The US contingent, with an “advise and assist” mission, is called Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR). Lt. General Stephen Townsend commands OIR. An additional 550 US Special Operations Forces are operating in ISIS-held territory in the neighboring country of Syria.

Currently, the US forces operating in Iraq and Syria have suffered just three KIAs (killed in action). The IMC doesn’t publicly report its casualties; however, independent on-the-ground United Nations officials calculate that the IMC has suffered just over 2,000 KIA.

During this IMC operational pause, Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi and US Defense Secretary Ash Carter traveled to the front lines of the fight for Mosul to meet with the IMC generals. Apparently, the discussion involved options for the IMC to markedly increase their slow progress in gaining control of Mosul from ISIS. Other key considerations are to reduce significant IMC casualties and to drastically reduce the effectiveness of ISIS’ deadly asymmetric tactics.

It appears, from multiple media reports and the West Point Counter-Terrorism Center, that the IMC is now employing a much more aggressive approach with pre-assault artillery bombardments prior to IMC’s tactical attacks. This aggressive fire support is a calculated risk for the IMC considering the heavy presence of Mosul civilians in and near the combat areas.

This article will focus on the macro-view of strategic and operational levels of the psychological dimensions of the Mosul fight. OpsLens will provide more details and a deeper tactical analysis—on both the ISIS and IMC sides—in the coming days.

IMC’s dilemma in balancing its assaulting forces’ casualties versus the civilians’ casualties is a tough decision. ISIS will probably continue its use of Mosul civilians as human shields. As IMC employs much more fire support to its leading units entering Mosul, this will likely result in higher ISIS and civilian casualties. Higher civilian casualties will yield much more intensified scrutiny from international observers and the media. Although the decision may appear to be uncaring toward the Mosul civilians, it is understandable from a “strategic mission perspective.”

When analyzing this IMC decision from the macro-view, several positive factors and trade-offs are evident: the overall positive impact of recapturing Mosul vis-à-vis the mission to defeat the brutal ISIS organization, degrading the prestige and recruiting successes of ISIS by defeating ISIS in Mosul, freeing the Mosul residents from oppression and slavery, and stopping the massive genocide of Christians, Yazidis, and other minority religions and their respective religious artifacts, among others.

The IMC, now fully engaged in the Mosul fight against ISIS, has no option except winning. Recapturing Mosul would be a major strategic defeat for ISIS. If the IMC loses this Mosul battle (or it ends in a stalemate), that would be an even bigger psychological defeat for the IMC. A defeat for the IMC has enormous negative consequences for the overarching anti-ISIS global coalition-building, and flowing from that, the ultimate defeat of ISIS.

The major task for the IMC is to be bolder and more aggressive in attacking ISIS in Mosul while keeping civilian casualties relatively low. This balancing aspect of the aggressive fight is pivotal to overall success. And ISIS will complicate this IMC balancing act with hostile and false propaganda to undermine the IMC’s credibility and will to fight.

To successfully balance the probability of higher civilian casualties with more IMC progress inside of Mosul will require deliberate IMC moves to quickly and accurately present the “battlefield picture.” That will necessitate a sophisticated public affairs and information operations campaign embedded in the IMC operational campaign. The IMC must prepare itself to seize two critical psychological components as adjuncts to its military campaign:

  • First, acquire near-real-time film footage of the ISIS atrocities on civilians—especially the brutal atrocities executed upon children and women;
  • Second, visually document the near-real-time illegal battle tactics employed by ISIS fighters (e.g., human shields, summary crucifixions, using fighting positions from hospitals, schools, and mosques).

Documenting these atrocities and quickly presenting the footage to the international media and human rights organizations will undermine the credibility of ISIS’ false propaganda programs. This aspect of the Mosul campaign is almost as important as the combat operations.

The IMC would be wise to assign special significance to its public relations effort during this new phase of its assault on Mosul. The IMC must ensure that it has concrete, unemotional metrics to measure its operational progress against the inevitable spike in civilian casualties. Most unbiased military analysts recognize that the ISIS terrorists have been (and continue to be) shamelessly violating standard Geneva Convention protocols of war. Fighting forces are not allowed to use civilians as human shields, deliberately establish their fighting positions and weapons among mosques/churches/synagogues, hospitals, and schools, or use apartment complexes full of civilians to fight from.

Our most recent experiences are replete with examples of the “Father of ISIS”—Al-Qaida in Iraq—operating deception campaigns to deliberately and grossly exaggerate civilian casualties. In related experiences, we have seen these terrorist deception campaigns, most notably in Iraq and Afghanistan, impede fair and balanced reporting by the international media. The terrorists always have their exaggerated (and sometimes false) claims and propaganda in the media headlines almost immediately. These negative propaganda campaigns negatively shape the international and local public perceptions before an unbiased investigation of the facts is presented.

This propaganda and its negative perception management tactics have become a vital part of the ISIS terrorists’ psychological operations against their adversaries and the media. The IMC would therefore be wise to learn this terrorist tactic and prepare itself with “quick-reaction investigative media teams” to quickly secure the truth and convey that truth to the international media and the world.

As promised, a more detailed analysis regarding ISIS and IMC tactics will be provided in the coming days.

Mike Furlong is a Senior OpsLens Contributor, career Army Infantry Officer, Battalion Task Force Commander, Combat Veteran, and Defense Intelligence Senior Executive Service, Retired.

 

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