Behind delay to retake Mosul from Islamic State, desire to ease the aftermath

Liberating the Iraqi city of Mosul from the Islamic State is expected to be a considerable challenge. But even more difficult could be taking care of civilians afterward.

Thaier Al-Sudani/Reuters
Members of the Iraqi security forces and Shiite fighters sit on a military vehicle in the town of Hamrin on Tuesday, the second day of Iraq's biggest offensive yet against Islamic State militants.

The offensive launched by Iraqi security forces – along with a band of Iranian-backed Shiite militias – to retake the Iraqi town of Tikrit from the Islamic State was reportedly a bit of a surprise to Pentagon officials. But they’ll be watching the result with a great deal of interest.

It will be a measure of the fortitude and capability of the Iraqi forces that the US military is endeavoring to train.

But the real test will come later, senior officials say, when between 20,000 and 25,000 Iraqi troops will move to retake Mosul, the country’s second-largest city.

Pentagon officials initially said that would happen this spring. But now, the Mosul offensive is on hold “indefinitely,” as military officials told The Daily Beast.

The move to retake the town won’t happen until Iraqi forces are ready not only to fight the battle in the streets, but also to care for the population in its aftermath.

Iraqi forces will need to be poised to help their countrymen in the wake of “some incredibly heart-wrenching moments” that they will have suffered, says retired Gen. John Allen, special envoy for the coalition to counter the Islamic State, also known as IS.

The liberation of the city of Mosul, which will probably involve some brutal urban warfare, will be a considerable challenge, says Mr. Allen, who commanded US forces in Afghanistan from 2011 to 2013 and commanded US Marines in western Iraq from 2006 to 2008.

A briefing last month that laid out the initial spring timing of the Mosul offensive garnered harsh criticism from lawmakers including Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who complained that the military revealed too many operational details.

But the offensive is not being delayed for operational security reasons. It is because Iraqi security forces must be ready to take on what will be perhaps the most challenging part of the “counteroffensive,” Allen said: “embracing [the] population” and “caring for it.”

In other words, the preparation of the estimated 20,000 to 25,000 Iraqi security forces who will take part in that battle “isn’t about the clearing force,” he told an audience at the Atlantic Council in Washington Monday evening. “It’s about the hold force.”

Soldiers as well as police will flow into the city to maintain order in the aftermath of the battle.

And when they do, whether this spring or later, “we’re going to discover – as we have before – that these populations have endured enormous abuse and deprivation,” Allen said.

A newly liberated Mosul will require reconstruction in “large segments,” along with an influx of food, medical treatment, and care for refugees.

Allen will lead a group going to Iraq next week to discuss precisely what that rebuilding process – for hearts, minds, and heaps of rubble – might entail.

The governance of IS has been “almost uniformly trending from negative to horrendous,” he said.

That’s prompted the emphasis on bringing comfort to the people – and delaying the offensive.

“We’ve got to be very careful – and we need to resist – trying to put a time on it,” he said. “We just need to be ready when the time comes.”

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