The battle to retake Mosul is stalemated

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IRBIL, Iraq – On a clear and chilly day in mid-December, Iraqi counterterrorism service (CTS) troops were fighting to clear Islamic State fighters from the Karama and Sumer districts in eastern Mosul. Like many of the other 38 neighborhoods of eastern Mosul that CTS officers said they had retaken, Karama had previously been reported liberated numerous times in local media since early November, and fighting had been ongoing in Sumer for days. Meanwhile, beleaguered Iraqi Army 9th Division troops – one of the only Iraqi security forces (ISF) units inside Mosul – were withstanding another withering Islamic State counterattack after overextending themselves in the Wahda neighborhood the week before.

Above them flew an orchestra of airplanes from nine countries. Strike aircraft with names like Eagle, Raptor, Harrier, Hornet, Typhoon, and Apache patrolled the skies, 43 in total. Further filling the airspace were a dozen drones and other support aircraft, including E-3 and E-4 airborne command and control planes, EC-130H electronic attack aircraft, Italian C-27J electronic jammers, and a midair tanker fleet, which throughout the day delivered more than 430,000 gallons of gas to the warplanes in the sky.

“It really is unlimited capacity,” said Brig. Gen. Matthew Isler, the coalition air campaign’s deputy commanding general, after describing the air forces available to him. That day, the coalition reported targeting six Islamic State tactical units, four vehicles, four mortar systems, four buildings, three rocket-propelled grenades, two car bomb factories, two front-end loaders, two tunnels, a land bridge, a bridge, a supply cache, and 13 roads. The CTS finally secured the two districts later that day, Isler said, making the operation a success.

Arabic media, however, reported that Iraqi forces were still shelling Sumer after Isler had declared it secure, while maps made by media activists that coordinate with government security forces still list the neighborhood as under Islamic State control.

Day 57 of the operation to retake Mosul was in many ways just another day. Even with the international coalition pulling out all the stops in the air campaign, Iraqi troops are making grinding progress in tough urban fighting against a suicidal and surrounded enemy. Initial hopes of a quick and easy victory have been dashed, as a carefully calibrated Islamic State strategy of suicide bombing extracts a high toll on Iraq’s most effective fighting units for every district retaken. Two months into the offensive, an estimated 75 percent of the city remains under the jihadi group’s control.

On Dec. 22, the Islamic State launched three car bomb attacks on the district of Gogjali, one of the first areas in the city declared liberated, killing at least 23 civilians and policemen.

Reporting on Mosul – particularly regarding ISF casualties – is an increasingly sensitive issue. Since early December, Iraqi authorities have restricted front-line access for international media. “Everyone was reporting whatever they wanted; they were not reporting the truth,” said Maj. Gen. Fadhil al-Barwari, the head of the CTS.

Foreign media may be blocked from Mosul’s front lines, but they are still welcome at Barwari’s private home, a stately house with a dusty Maserati parked out front in a gated community of Irbil. “We have no problem with journalists,” Barwari said, sitting in the lounge with three cell phones, two remote controls, cigarettes, and a handgun arrayed on a table in front of him. “But we cannot take responsibility for them or allow them to publish footage of front-line positions or of dead CTS soldiers.”

Flattering reports of their successes against the Islamic State have made national heroes of the CTS – an institution separate from the Iraqi Defense Ministry, which answers directly to Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. Barwari, a Kurd and former Peshmerga fighter who joined the Iraqi military in 2004, is a national celebrity; he boasts more than 200,000 likes on Facebook and 70,000 Instagram followers. The positive coverage is a far cry from just a few years ago when Iraqis called the CTS the “Dirty Brigades” and some Western outlets labeled them as a “death squad” of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

But their reputation as elite fighters makes them particularly sensitive to the reporting of casualties. “My guys are not action heroes,” Barwari said. “They do get killed – but not in the numbers that were reported.”

He’s talking in particular about the U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI), which this month reported that 1,959 ISF members were killed across the country in November. The figures caused an outcry, with the joint operations command of the Iraqi military denouncing them as “highly exaggerated.” In response, UNAMI announced that it would no longer publish military casualty figures.

Barwari warns though that tough fighting lies ahead and that the slow progress of the operation will be difficult to accelerate. “God willing we will win, but because it’s street fighting inside a city there will be heavy casualties,” he said.

An ISF spokesman boasted to Foreign Policy in November that retaking eastern Mosul would take only a matter of days, but recent attempts to speed up the advance have met with disaster. On Dec. 6, 9th Division soldiers pushed to within a mile of the Tigris River, which divides Mosul, to retake Salam Hospital, one of the tallest buildings east of the river. But Islamic State fighters soon launched a withering counterattack, inflicting heavy casualties.

One soldier told The Associated Press that of the 100 soldiers trapped there, nearly all were killed or wounded. The next day, CTS troops were diverted to open a corridor to allow the 9th Division soldiers to withdraw before the hospital itself was bombed by coalition troops. An Islamic State propaganda video filmed at the hospital showed at least a dozen destroyed ISF vehicles, numerous dead soldiers, and piles of captured materiel.

The incident convinced many that the CTS troops were the only soldiers up to the task of retaking Mosul. Barwari himself says as much: “We will continue to fight at the front and give the cleared districts to army and police to hold.”

However, observers fear that an overreliance on CTS fighters could see the entire operation grind to a halt if the elite units sustain heavy casualties.

“They were never designed to go out and clear neighborhoods,” said David M. Witty, a retired U.S. Army Special Forces colonel and former CTS advisor. Founded to carry out counterterrorism operations such as hostage rescue or capturing insurgent leaders, the CTS was gradually built up under American training to a strength of about 13,500 soldiers in 2013, before major fighting against the Islamic State began.

“These are highly valuable assets that can’t easily be replaced,” Witty said. “Rapid training, that doesn’t work for special operations forces.”

Following local Arabic media reports, Witty worries that a high death doll may impact the effectiveness of the CTS. “I’ve heard anywhere from 20 to 35 percent casualties,” he said. “That’s very high for an elite unit of that size. I don’t know how long it can keep doing that.”

The international coalition hopes that increasing air support will help shift the balance in the operation. It is now flying 50 percent more operations with twice the weapons capacity than during its previous peak in the CTS offensive to retake Ramadi. “There has never been a more precise large-scale close-support air operation in history,” Isler said.

With the biggest threat to Iraqi troops coming from Islamic State suicide car bombs, or VBIEDs, the coalition has adjusted its air campaign to target their production networks and to crater roads to slow suicide bombers long enough for ground troops to destroy them. Their efforts are having an effect, according to Isler. “We’re seeing less armor and less net explosive weight in the VBIEDs – they are more hastily prepared and less effective,” he said.

Coalition and Iraqi authorities both still insist that victory is all but ensured. The Islamic State fighters, Isler said, “aren’t playing to win – they’re playing to delay.” But with the battle now resembling a war of attrition, the final cost of retaking Mosul may be higher than anyone is willing to admit.

(c) 2016, Foreign Policy · Campbell MacDiarmid