Monday, March 21, 2016

Mosul Storm?

I remain disturbed that a year and a half after we and our allies started training Iraqi army forces, the Counter-Terrorism force remains the only core force capable of leading Iraqi offensives. But does this apparent weakness mask preparations for a blitz north?

Iraqi forces continue to press their offensive in Iraq's Anbar province, after liberating Ramadi from ISIL control:

Led by the elite Counter-Terrorism Service, forces from the police, army and local tribal fighters were making a final push to retake Hit, 145 kilometres (90 miles) west of Baghdad.

"They have begun a broad operation to liberate Hit and Kubaysa," Major General Ali Ibrahim Daboun, the head of the Al-Jazeera Operations Command, told AFP.

We are providing air support, along with Iraqi aircraft.

Although I assume that we have trained Iraqi forces capable of spearheading less-trained ground forces who follow in their wake to hold gains but are holding them out of the line for the Mosul offensive (once that last and most important PowerPoint presentation is finally made!), it does remain disturbing to me that the small counter-terrorism force remains--as it was in June 2014 when ISIL took Mosul--the only Iraqi force actually spearheading Iraqi offensives.

I hope my assumption is right. Sadly, a recent Marine casualty indicates that we probably are getting close to unleashing a Mosul Storm:

The Marine killed in an ISIS rocket attack in Iraq on Saturday was at the first American firebase that had only become operational a few days earlier CNN has learned.

The existence of the firebase had not been made public. The Pentagon had planned to acknowledge the firebase this week, a defense official tells CNN.

The rugged location for now has a "couple of hundred" Marines living in tents near Makhmour in northern Iraq. It's assumed ISIS observed the Marines moving into the area and saw them firing practice rounds with their howitzers, the official said.

This is our first firebase--a protected artillery unit (usually a battery guarded by a company of infantry) to support units in the field--and is called Firebase Bell. Although we have artillery on bigger bases to help defend them.

We were perhaps not dug in yet and perhaps not acclimated to the hostile environment. ISIL took advantage of that.

I've long wanted our fire support to include not just air power but helicopters and artillery. So this is good.

I hope this indicates a pending offensive since I'd guess we wouldn't want to dangle a potential rocket magnet like that out there too long for no purpose.

And I hope that ISIL morale in their Iraq contingent is as fragile as I think it is, and that once the Mosul offensive starts it will make progress more rapid than observers assume--and kill ISIL defenders in large numbers by pursuing them until they break and run.

UPDATE: Strategypage has thoughts on the pending offensive, which follows operations to interfere with ISIL lines of communication into Mosul:

Government forces south of Mosul and Kurdish troops (and non-Moslem militias) north of the city and government forces and Shia militias south of the city are already preparing for the final attack on the densely built city center. This “approach battle” is meant to cut the city off from other ISIL forces in Anbar and Syria. The main road to Raqqa was cut in late February with the capture of the town of Shaddadi. That followed the continuing advance into western Anbar since the liberation of Ramadi in December 2015. Another important success has been government forces becoming as effective as the Kurds in regularly defeating ISIL counterattacks. You rarely hear of successful ISIL attacks on Iraqi security forces anymore.

Reports from inside Mosul indicate growing panic and declining morale among ISIL personnel (at all levels). This has led to growing internal violence, like public executions of misbehaving ISIL members. Recently 21 ISIL men were publicly executed for refusing to fight.

Politics, as in how to handle the Kurds and pro-Iran Shia militias and what they might want, is what is holding the offensive back rather than narrow military issues.

Do read it all.

And I'll say it again, I'm not sure that enough ISIL members in Iraq are willing to fight to the death these days to hold off the offensive.

As long as I'm at it, I'd like to see a Jordanian offensive into western Anbar to complement the Iraqi push that has continued since the liberation of Ramadi. This would reduce ISIL ability to shift forces to Mosul and potentially collapse ISIL across all its Iraq territory.