President Obama entered the White House pledging to end the United States’ military involvement in Iraq. Eight years later, he is leaving office with the US at a crucial moment in its evolving Iraq engagement.
The battle to retake Mosul – Iraq’s second-largest city, center of Sunni Arab nationalism, and the place where Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in 2014 proclaimed his caliphate – will have far-reaching implications.
For Iraq, which began the assault this week with US support, the outcome may well determine its prospects for survival as a unified state of Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds.
For the US, the battle is shaping up as a major test not only for its influence in the region, but also for a potentially new model for counterterrorism.
“What Obama has stumbled on is a new way of carrying out the counterterrorism fight that is neither [President] Bush’s deployment of 150,000 troops to do it all, nor his own, initial … zero-footprint approach,” says Ilan Goldenberg, director of the Middle East security program at the Center for a New American Security in Washington.
“If this new model of a comparatively small number of American troops embedded with local security forces is successful at helping to retake a major city,” he adds, “it will become the sustainable third way for dealing with terrorist safe havens that threaten US national security.”
Indeed, how the battle to wrest a city of 1 million civilians from an Islamist terrorist organization unfolds will go a long way in determining American diplomatic and military credibility in the region for years to come, regional experts say. Some allies, long accustomed to America’s tendency to act robustly, have grown increasingly uneasy as Mr. Obama has turned the US into an enabler of others' actions instead of an instigator or commander.
“If this battle is carried out successfully, it will restore at least some faith in American military capabilities while at the same time restoring some credibility to our commitment to working with friends and allies in the region,” says James Jeffrey, who served as US ambassador to Iraq from 2010-12.
'Lead from behind,' reimagined
In that way, Mosul represents a substantial evolution of Obama’s “lead from behind” approach in the Middle East. In 2011, for instance, the president largely let European countries lead operations against Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi. While the US military is clearly taking a supporting role to the Iraqi Army in Mosul, it has taken a central role in planning and overseeing the operation.
“We’re seeing in Mosul a different type of involvement where, instead of standing back, we’re demonstrating our commitment by getting in the fight,” says Mr. Jeffrey, now a distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “It’s not just holding your coat while you brawl with someone, it’s leading the brawl.”
The US is assuring the Iraqis that US commanders will not stand back if the going gets tough. They will be engaged in the fight with the Iraqis.
“That’s different even from other battles in Iraq against ISIS,” Jeffrey says.
Partly, that is because the US wants to see the campaign carried out – to the extent possible – in ways that spare the civilian population, minimize the chances of a humanitarian disaster, and tamp down on sectarian flames between the Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds. The primary goal of the battle is internal: to reinforce the Iraqi government as the central, unifying force for all of the country’s political and sectarian factions.
Iran and Russia are watching
But American engagement will also be watched closely outside Iraq, experts say.
“If we manage to make our strategy work in Mosul, I don’t think there’s any doubt it increases our credibility with our regional partners,” says Mr. Goldenberg. “The same goes for others who are extending their reach in the region.”
That would include Iran and Russia, both of which have moved to fill what analysts refer to as the “vacuum” left by Obama’s disengagement from the region – in particular his hands-off approach to the Syrian conflict.
But if the US can guide the defeat of the so-called Islamic State in Mosul and reintegrate the Sunni stronghold into Iraqi national political and economic life, it could be a powerful statement.
“Success in Mosul and Iraq will do much to restore US credibility and influence,” writes Anthony Cordesman, a Middle East security analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, in an online commentary. “It will help counterbalance Russian success in Syria, limit the role of Iran, and restore some degree of confidence on the part of our other Arab allies.”
That success would not be a cure-all, others add. Turkey could seek a more active role inside Iraq, setting off sparks with Kurds and the Iraqi government. Or Iran could push for more involvement in the battle by Shiite militias.
“But so far we’ve managed to keep these various interests in balance,” says Goldenberg. “It suggests that the six months of diplomatic effort before the battle are paying off.”
The 'day after' test
On Tuesday, Obama linked the destruction of the Islamic State to security in the US and Europe. The coalition will “drive them out of population centers” from which the Islamic State has carried out attacks on other countries.
Jeffrey and others agree that Mosul is likely to be the beginning of the end of the Islamic State as an integrated organization with global reach.
“This doesn’t mean the end of ISIS, but this battle puts them deeper into the final stages of their existence as a state and army, and their ability to initiate distant attacks,” he says.
At the same time, the real test of Mosul – and the new US model of counterterrorist operations – will come in the “day after” period, when a military victory must be translated into a political success, experts say.
“The most important question going forward will be, can you take back Mosul in a way that doesn’t exacerbate sectarian tensions, and then in the long term do you find a way to reintegrate Sunnis in a manner that is acceptable to them and keeps Iraq unified?” Goldenberg adds. “If not, we might just end up with ISIS 3.0 five years from now.”