Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Clear Out Anbar First

As I've advocated an Anbar First approach to defeating ISIL in Iraq--and hoping for a Jordanian offensive from the west as a major part of this--the Iraqis are debating the Anbar versus Mosul question, too:

In Iraq’s military circles, there has long been a debate over the order of battle — Anbar first or the Islamic State’s Iraqi stronghold of Mosul, in Nineveh province to the north, or simultaneous operations in more than one province.

While some had argued that Fallujah, already heavily besieged, could wait until after Mosul, a growing number of Iraqi commanders are now arguing otherwise.

“We’ve changed our thinking and think we need to continue to invest in the collapse of Daesh in Anbar,” Mahlawi said, using the group’s Arabic acronym. “Anbar will be liberated entirely, then the forces will move north.”

So for now, even as preparations for Mosul are made, the Iraqis are rightly seeking to exploit their Ramadi success:

After clearing the last neighborhoods of the battered city of Ramadi last week, Iraqi special forces packed up to leave but expected to move on quickly to their next offensive — the walled market town of Hit.

Located 30 miles northwest of Ramadi, also in Anbar province, Hit has been occupied by the Islamic State since the fall of 2014. About 12,000 civilians are estimated to remain, local officials say.

While a buildup of Iraqi army forces has begun farther north in preparation for a Mosul offensive, special forces known as Iraq’s “Golden Division” have a more immediate target. Bolstered by a win in Ramadi, commanders say they plan to take full advantage of a state of disarray among the militants in the area — prioritizing Hit, while debate continues on whether to move farther west to Fallujah.

Cleaning up Anbar and enabling a new Awakening Sunni Arab force to hold the gains would free up a lot of Iraqi manpower for the Mosul offensive.

And cleaning up Anbar would reduce the need to have so many good troops guarding the greater Baghdad region by pushing ISIL away from the city where they have been able to launch terror attacks into that region.

Further, losing all that territory would be another blow to the morale of ISIL and reduce the global recruiting effort that relies on the existence of a robust caliphate on the march.

I'm not sure what the timeline for a Mosul offensive is--is it this year or 2017?--but it seems far enough in the future that a focus on Anbar now might not even affect the drive on Mosul.

And to the point of simultaneous offensives, that should not be too difficult for the Iraqi military given how much they outnumber ISIL and given that a Mosul offensive will also bring in the Kurds who otherwise will sit and watch. So two offensives will add some forces to the Iraqi order of battle.

Have no doubt that our air power is strong enough to support as many offensives as the Iraqis can manage.

Note however, that offensives require core Iraqi mobile forces to spearhead offensives. And Iraq is moving their Ramadi spearhead--the counter-terrorism force (that "Golden Division" which is not an actual division in size) to spearhead the Hit attack. If this is the only force Iraq has that can work with our air power and reliably advance in the face of fanatics, multiple offensives without really heavy casualties won't be possible.