Sunday, October 23, 2016

Light Resistance

I am well aware (although not from personal experience, I hasten to add) that a staff daily report that says troops advancing are facing "light resistance" looks a lot like Hell on Earth to the troops at the pointy end of the stick where the small-scale fighting is taking place. But with that caveat in mind, the Iraqi offensive toward Mosul is facing light resistance.

The offensive is moving forward, on schedule if slowly, according to reports. ISIL is resisting:

Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend, commander of the US-led coalition, said Saturday that jihadist resistance was stiff.

"It's pretty significant, we are talking about enemy indirect fire, multiple IEDs (improvised explosive devices), multiple VBIED (vehicle-borne IEDs) each day, even some anti-tank guided missiles," he said in Baghdad.

Sure, it is stiff for the troops encountering the resistance. Any of it would be terrifying on the receiving end.

But indirect fire, IEDs, "multiple" VBIEDs, and "some" anti-tank missile fire is not so much resistance as it is delaying and harassing tactics.

Especially when you consider that we estimate 3,000 to 5,000 ISIL fighters are in Mosul and 1 or 2 thousand are on the outskirts as Iraqi forces are still approaching the city. So even 2,000 ISIL troops are not defending a main line of resistance outside of the city. They are leaving small forces in cities and towns that Iraqi forces appear to surround first--showing the lack of a main line of resistance forward of the city--before clearing them.

And as I noted earlier, the ISIL counter-attack on Kirkuk was insignificant. About 50 enemy ISIL gunmen were killed and the few who weren't killed seem to have fled. This was nothing more than a one-way suicide mission raid that had no effect on the advance. Nor did a suicide attack on the Iraq-Jordan border have an effect.

Heck, even setting fire to a sulfur plant is nothing more than a delaying tactic by ISIL:

Up to 1,000 people have been treated for breathing problems linked to fumes from a sulfur plant set ablaze during fighting with Islamic State in northern Iraq and U.S. officials say U.S. forces at a nearby airfield are wearing protective masks.

A cloud of white smoke blanketed the area around the Mishraq sulfur plant, near Mosul, mingling with black fumes from oil wells that the militants torched to cover their moves.

This kind of terrorist action is more akin to reacting to an industrial accident than a chemical strike, which requires putting down a sufficient density of gas on the ground to kill and wound troops to take them out of the fight.

At worse, civilians are injured--not killed except for the very young or old, or already sick--and so the government military forces are compelled to divert some troops to cope with the civilian casualties.

But it does not strike me that any real delay has been imposed on the slow, tidy advance the Iraqis have planned by this sulfur cloud.

Burning oil is also just an inconvenience and may harm the jihadis more than the Iraqi forces advancing, given the ability of Western sensors to see through the smoke. Recall that during the 2003 invasion, a huge sand storm swept across the area of operations and Saddam's forces believed they could move under its cover--and were smashed up by our air power which was not blinded by the dust.

So far ISIL has done nothing to derail the lumbering offensive approaching Mosul. And short of blowing a major dam (that is already shaky enough to fail on its own) that inundates Baghdad with a surge of water or a pro-Iran coup in Baghdad by pro-Iranian Shia militias, I'm not sure what could do the trick and compel a halt to the offensive to direct the troops to flood relief or protecting the government.

But the light resistance by ISIL combined with Iraqi caution in the advance is giving ISIL time. And when you can't buy victory, you buy time to see if opportunities or errors can be exploited to buy that victory.

UPDATE: The ISIL attack on Kirkuk was by 100 men--a company-sized unit. And it was defeated without affecting the Iraqi advance. So this is a bit hyper-ventilating:

The scale of the operation - the largest of several by Islamic State to divert an advance on their stronghold in Mosul - shows how tough the battle for Mosul may become and points to a continued ability of the militant group to undermine security across the country even if its northern bastion falls.

Strategypage has a nice and thorough post that notes that the advance is faster than ISIL anticipated. And I don't think the Kirkuk suicide raid shows how tough the battle for Mosul will be:

Outside of Mosul there are about thousand ISIL men left trying to delay the advance. That ISIL delaying forces was supposed to be larger but in addition to combat losses this force has suffered a lot of desertions. Evidence of this could be found in the captured tunnels recently built under some towns and villages. The tunnels were built to hold far more men than the advancing troops were encountering and some documents and graffiti left behind indicated that ISIL morale was declining as was the number of ISIL fighters willing to stick around for the final battle. The advancing Kurds and Iraqis report that they have killed over 800 ISIL men so far and while there are still plenty of landmines and roadside bombs there are fewer snipers or ISIL defenders of any sort.

ISIL surely has some portion of their force that is eager to die for Allah, but over the last year the ISIL forces have not shown that virgin-anticipating eagerness for death that is supposed to make the battle for Mosul so hard.

I could be wrong, but I don't see ISIL dying in place in Mosul. This is no Stalingrad 1942. Or Berlin 1945. Or Aachen 1944. Or Manila 1945.

Although given how the press keeps talking about delaying actions as heavy resistance, I suppose the battle for Mosul will be described as tough no matter what.