By Mike Furlong:
We offer our readership a summary update on the Iraqi Military Coalition’s (IMC) three-month 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 was restarted on December 29, 2016 after a month-long IMC “operational pause” reported by several media sources.
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 artillery bombardments to protect its assaulting forces. This significant increased fire support is a calculated risk for the IMC considering the heavy presence of Mosul civilians in and near the combat areas.
As Reuters reported a few days ago:
Iraqi special forces battling Islamic State reached the eastern bank of the Tigris river in Mosul on Sunday for the first time in a three-month, U.S.-backed offensive to capture the city from the militants, who still control its entire western half. … Units of Iraq’s elite counter-terrorism service (CTS) have fought their way to the eastern bank of the Tigris, spokesman Sabah al-Numan said. It was the first time [that] Iraqi troops in the city itself have reached the river, which bisects Mosul, since the offensive to drive out Islamic State was launched in October. Iraqi forces already control the Tigris to Mosul’s south. They are not expected to push across the river without first recapturing the rest of the eastern districts, and in fact all the bridges have been taken out of service by air strikes. But reaching the eastern bank shows the accelerated pace of the latest Iraqi advance, which has made daily gains since restarting 10 days ago.
Up to now, ISIS has been able to rapidly reinforce and counterattack IMC forces throughout the city. This new IMC foothold along the eastern bank of the Tigris River changes the battlefield calculations.
With the IMC’s limited success on the eastern third of Mosul, combined with the successful U.S. bombing of all five bridges that connect the east and west portions of the city, the IMC will now face the proverbial “cornered rat” as it attempts to penetrate western Mosul—the strength of ISIS’ defenses.
This limited IMC success should degrade ISIS’ capability to counterattack with suicide car bombers and shuffle Mosul civilians as human shields into the eastern side of the city. The IMC’s new foothold on the east bank of the Tigris should enhance its intelligence gathering and situational understanding of ISIS movements.
The IMC’s aggressive increase in artillery support for its ground forces, as well as ISIS’ use of civilians as human shields, will intensify scrutiny from international observers and the media regarding civilian casualties. The IMC’s upcoming dilemma in balancing its assaulting forces’ casualties versus civilian casualties is a tough decision. Although the decision may appear to be uncaring toward the Mosul civilians, it is understandable.
When analyzing this IMC decision from a macro-view, several factors and trade-offs are evident: the overall positive psychological impact of recapturing Mosul vis-à-vis the mission to defeat the brutal ISIS organization; the overall negative impact on ISIS recruiting; the positive impact for the Iraqi people in liberating 500,000 to 700,000 trapped fellow Mosul civilians; the operational benefits for the IMC in reclaiming Mosul’s large airfield in northwestern Iraq for its own air strikes and resupply of IMC forward forces; and the enhancement of the IMC’s capability to cut off ISIS’ black market supply lines to Turkey and northeastern Iraq.
The IMC would be wise to designate special significance to its public relations efforts 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 (and continue to) shamelessly violate 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 to fight from apartment complexes full of civilians.
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, co-opt fair and balanced reporting by the international media. The terrorists always have their exaggerated (and often false) claims and propaganda feature in media headlines almost immediately. These negative propaganda campaigns damage international and local public perceptions before an unbiased investigation of the facts can be presented.
This propaganda and its negative perception management have become a vital part of the terrorists’ psychological operations. The IMC would, therefore, be wise to learn this terrorist tactic, and prepare itself by having a “quick-reaction investigative team” on standby to respond, seize the truth, and quickly convey that truth to the world.
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 to 700,000 Mosul civilians (largely of the Sunni Muslim sect) are trapped inside of Mosul as “slave labor and human shields” for the ISIS terrorists.
The U.S. military contribution to the IMC numbers about 6,000 troops. The U.S. contingent, with an “advise and assist” mission, is called Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR). Lt. General Stephen Townsend commands OIR, which also includes an additional 550 U.S. Special Operations Forces operating in ISIS-held territory in the neighboring country of Syria.
Currently, the U.S. 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.
My second article (in a series of three) regarding an assessment of ISIS and the IMC tactics will be posted 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.