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The Next Target in the War on the Islamic State: Mosul? Tikrit? Is Anybody in Charge? (Updated March 7, 2015)

03/05/2015 02:36 pm ET | Updated May 05, 2015

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Islamic State militants in Anbar Province

(Updated March 7, 2015)
On February 19, a spokesman described only as a "officer" with the Public Affairs office of the U.S. Military's Central Command (CENTCOM) in Tampa, Florida, held an "off the record" briefing, via phone, with 18 reporters who cover the Pentagon. The briefing had been authorized by CENTCOM and was carried out in accordance with previously established "ground rules." In the briefing, it was disclosed that the U.S. wanted the Iraqi military to launch an offensive to retake Mosul in either April or May of this year, and that the campaign would likely involve between 20,000 to as many as 25,000 men. The news brought an avalanche of criticism for the "disclosure of military secrets," led by Republican Senators McCain and Graham. Even the Baghdad government weighed in, angry at the "leak," denying that there were any plans for an imminent attack on Mosul or that they had been consulted about one.

Instead, on March 2, Baghdad announced the start of a military campaign to retake the city of Tikrit, birthplace of Saddam Hussein, and the capital of Saladin province. This time it was the Pentagon that was caught by surprise. A Pentagon spokesman confirmed that Baghdad had not "sought permission" from the U.S. before mounting the attack and that the Pentagon had been unaware of the campaign. More importantly, American air power had not been deployed in support of the Iraqi attack. According to a report by Anne Barnard in the March 3 New York Times, the attack on Tikrit involves approximately 30,000 men, roughly two thirds of whom were Shia militia, now called "popular mobilization forces." These forces are likely drawn mostly from the Badr Militia. In addition, according to the New York Times report, advisors and troops from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps were "operating artillery, rocket launchers and surveillance drones." The Iranian force is most likely a combination of Revolutionary Guard as well as Quds Force units.

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Quds Force Commander, Major General Qasem Soleimani

It is unclear whether Iran was providing any air forces in support of the campaign or what other Iranian military forces may have been deployed as well. It appeared that the operation was, unofficially, being directed by Quds Force commander, Iranian Major General Qassim Suleimani, in a role he has played in previous operations against Islamic State forces. In the meantime, the new Secretary of Defense, Ashton Carter, attempted to "walk back" the briefing, describing it as "inaccurate" and "a moment of speculation" and asserting that "the information should not have been blurted out to the press." He promised the Senate Armed Services Committee a full internal inquiry. General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, confirmed that the Pentagon would "take the appropriate action" once the inquiry was complete.

What exactly is going on here? Are the Three Stooges directing the U.S. campaign against the Islamic State, or is there more here than meets the eye? In the intricate Kabuki dance-drama that passes for Middle East policy formulation in Washington, things are rarely what they appear to be on the surface. The deeper, more important issues are invariably left unsaid. Is this a tempest in a teapot, or are there important lessons to be teased from this sad little affair?

First, the controversy surrounding the CENTCOM briefing was overblown. As a general rule, the U.S. military does not usually announce intended targets of its military operations in advance. When it does announce them, the information is either sufficiently vague to be of little use to an opponent or designed to confuse or otherwise misdirect the intended target. Disclosing a proposed campaign to retake Mosul sometime this spring is hardly a "leak." It's common knowledge that such a campaign is coming. Its timing will be the result of political factors as much as it will be the result of military factors. In any case, Islamic State forces are well aware that a campaign is inevitable and have been preparing for it ever since they officially "took" Mosul in June 2014. Moreover, the buildup of Iraqi ground forces required to launch such an operation will be obvious to them and will give them plenty of notice to expect an attack. There was no "leak" here, authorized or otherwise, and to criticize the "briefing" as such is both inaccurate and disingenuous. Rather, it was an example of "non-news news," the typical government practice of stating the obvious in the context of a "confidential off the record briefing" in order to lend weight to what is otherwise mundane. The Pentagon might as well have disclosed that according to "confidential and reliable sources" the sun would rise tomorrow.

The more important question, the one that as of yet seems to have been unasked, is why there was a need for a briefing at all. Was it a slow news day in Tampa? Did someone in CENTCOM's chain of command hunger for a little press, or was there something else at work here? Were unseen hands at the White House pushing for the announcement? The fact is that the recapture of Mosul will be trumpeted by the Obama administration as proof positive that its strategy of using air power to degrade the Islamic State while eschewing the deployment of American ground forces in Iraq has been successful, confirmation that the original withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq was justified and that the current administration has a strategy for dealing with any subsequent issues that may develop there. For an administration whose Middle East policy can at best be charitably described as incoherent (the words "inarticulate" and "incomprehensible" also come to mind), a "win," anything that can be even remotely described as a victory, would be greatly coveted. Perhaps this was all a coincidence? To be clear, there is no evidence that the briefing came at the behest of the White House. At the intersection of politics and government policy, however, there are rarely coincidences.

What of the issues left unsaid? Why move on Tikrit now instead of Mosul? What does this sorry little incident tell us about the U.S. government's strategy in fighting the Islamic State and the nature of its relationship with the Baghdad government?

First of all, an attack on Tikrit makes sense and is a logical precursor to an eventual campaign to retake Mosul. The Islamic State's territory in Iraq consists mostly of empty desert, a handful of major cities and the roads that connect them. The north and west is mostly mountainous and controlled by Kurdish Peshmerga forces. The west and southwest mostly comprises the Syrian Desert, while the Tigris River Valley mostly forms the south, where the bulk of the population centers are. There are three main highways that intersect Mosul. Highway 2 runs from the Turkish border near the city of Zakho, in the north, through Mosul and then east to Erbil. Kurdish forces control both the routes north and east. This is mountainous country, with few people, and the Islamic State has little if any support or assets here. The highway to Bardarash also runs east into Kurdish territory and is of little use to Islamic State militants. The key arterials are Highway 1, which runs east from the Syrian border to Mosul and then south through the Tigris River valley into the heart of the Sunni triangle, and Highway 47, which connects to Highway 1 just past Tal Afar and also runs to the Syrian border. Highway 47 cuts through a key portion of the Islamic State's territory and is the shortest route to Ar-Raqqah, the Islamic State's capital. Kurdish forces at Sinjar have cut Highway 47's access to the Syrian border, and they are expected to move on Tal Afar later this spring. They have already cut the highway between Tal Afar and Mosul. The last major arterial, Highway 80, runs southeast toward Kirkuk, where it meets Highway 3 to Baghdad and Highway 24 to Tikrit.

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Iraq road network

Tikrit is an important transportation hub. Control of Tirkit would mean that virtually all the major roads east of the Tigris would be under the control of Peshmerga and Iraqi government forces. After Tikrit, it would be expected that Baghdad would move to finally take full control of Baiji and the surrounding area, and with it the junction to Highway 19. That highway, which runs to the southwest and connects to Highway 12, continues on to Hit, Ramadi and (via Highway 1 and 11) to Fallujah and from there links to the remaining highways across the Syrian Desert. Iraqi military forces have been engaging Islamic State militants, this time supported by U.S. airpower, just east of Fallujah. Its possible that Baghdad may also move to secure the region from Fallujah all the way to Haditha (just North of Hit and near the junction of highways 12 and 19) before moving on Mosul. Doing so would better secure Baghdad from a retaliatory attack by IS forces as well as cut off Islamic State forces in southeast Syria from the key Sunni population centers in Anbar province. The successful completion of these two campaigns might well push an offensive on Mosul into 2016.

Mosul is already surrounded on three sides by Peshmerga forces. By taking control of Highway 1 from Baiji south and cutting access to Highway 1 from the west and from Tal Afar, Islamic State militants in Mosul will be effectively cut off from additional reinforcements from Islamic State forces in Syria and the Sunni Triangle. Although the Syrian Desert is relatively flat, numerous steep wadis bisect it. Control of the road network is critical to moving men and supplies. Given the preponderance of American air power over the Syrian Desert, and terrain conditions, any attempt to move reinforcements off road would be met with a quick and effective attack from the air. Imagine driving off road from Palm Springs to Las Vegas if you want to get a taste of what driving across the Syrian Desert would be like.

All this would suggest that the dispute between Washington and Baghdad is all about tactics rather than overarching strategy. The Iraqi strategy of first cutting off road access and fully encircling Mosul prior to a full attack would seem a more careful and slower approach than that advocated by Washington. The strategic objective, however, would seem to be the same, even if the White House would prefer to put Mosul in the "win" column sooner rather than later. In reality the issue is much deeper. The problem has been and remains what to do with Iraq's Sunnis.

American financing and arming of the Sunni militias, under the auspices of the Awakening Councils, played a crucial role in the defeat of the militant insurgency that gripped the Sunni areas of Iraq from 2003 through 2008. The failure of the Maliki government to follow through on promises to integrate the Sunni militias into the Iraqi armed forces, or, in lieu of that, to find meaningful employment for them, played an important role in the subsequent rise of the Islamic State and the ease with which it ejected Iraqi government forces from the Sunni regions of Iraq. Despite promises to the contrary, the current Abadi government in Baghdad has done little to mobilize Sunni forces or find a meaningful role for them to play in the battle with the Islamic State.

Moreover, Iraqi Sunnis are deeply suspicious of the prominent role that Shia militias are now playing in the campaign against the Islamic State. These militias have been implicated in scores of summary executions of captured Sunni militants and suspected jihadists. Although Shia militias have not engaged in the deliberate brutality that has come to characterize Islamic State militants, there is a significant fear within Iraq's Sunni community that life under the Shia militias will be only marginally better than life under the Islamic State. The ongoing "ethnic cleansing" of Baghdad at the hand of Shite militias with, the apparent, tacit approval, of the Baghdad Government's Interior Ministry, may be a good indication for what is in store for Iraqi Sunnis. As Iraqi government forces begin the advance into the heartland of the Sunni Triangle, they will confront Sunni civilians who deeply distrust them and blame the government in Baghdad for the policies that gave rise to the Islamic State in the first place. Neither side trusts or has much use for the other; centuries of mistreatment and persecution at the hands of a Sunni minority cannot be so easily set aside by the Shia majority, and the record from Baghdad over the last 10 years does little to placate Sunni fears. Shia-Sunni conflict and distrust will continue to be one of the principal axes around which Iraq's future will revolve.

This brings us now to the United States and the underlying issue that has sharply divided Washington and Baghdad. At the time that the United States withdrew from Iraq, the Baghdad government had 56 brigades organized into 14 divisions in nine regional commands. This force level was actually higher than what had originally been envisioned by the United States. Initially the U.S. had planned on a force of approximately 300,000 men organized into 36 brigades, in turn organized into 10 infantry divisions and six mechanized infantry divisions. In reality, the larger Iraqi military force proved to be illusory. Corruption within the officer corps was rampant, with army supplies intended for troops often being sold off on the black market. Command appointments were dictated by the litmus test of political loyalty rather than competence. The Iraqi government used the military as a giant slush fund to pay off supporters, especially its adherents within the Shia militias. It has been estimated that as many as 50,000 appointments to the military were illusory -- phantom soldiers drawing a paycheck but otherwise permanently AWOL. At the moment, only 25 brigades, roughly half of its "official" strength a year ago, are active, and most of these are at half-strength at best. Under these circumstances the virtual collapse of the Iraqi army in the summer of 2014 when confronted by Islamic State militants is hardly a surprise.

The U.S. military is currently in the process of organizing, equipping and training nine new Iraqi brigades at a cost in excess of $1.3 billion. Approximately 2,600 American troops have been either dispatched or earmarked for deployment as part of the Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve. Additional trainers have been promised by Canada and Australia as well as a number of NATO members. The training is taking place at Al-Assad Air Base and at bases around Taiji, Ebril and Besmaya. Three of those brigades consist of Iraqi Sunni troops under the command of Sunni officers. That's the rub. The Abadi government doesn't want Sunni brigades. It has been noncommittal about deploying them and has been ambivalent about attempting any kind of reconciliation with Iraq's Sunni community. Abadi has called for Sunni militias to "participate" in the fight against Islamic State but has been silent about what role they might play once IS militants are expelled.

There are a small number Sunni militias participating in the Tikrit campaign, but these are not part of the regular Iraqi army and are only lightly armed. Likewise, there has been much discussion about training and arming "exiled" Sunni police forces from Mosul as part of the projected campaign to take Mosul from IS militants, but little practical progress has been made. The Mosul Police was the one institution that put up a spirited defense against Islamic State forces in June 2014. They continued to fight even after the Iraqi army had abandoned the city. The U.S. military believes that the participation of Sunni brigades in the liberation of the Sunni Triangle from Islamic State forces sends an important message to the Sunni community and has a symbolic significance, in much the same way that Eisenhower insisted that the first Allied soldiers to enter Paris be Free French Forces regardless of how extensive a role they had played in the campaign.

For Baghdad, armed Sunni brigades under Sunni officers, even though they are part of the Iraqi Army, are seen as the nucleus of a potential armed Sunni opposition to the Iraqi government. By rejecting U.S. plans to move immediately on Mosul and opting instead to move against Tikrit with the help of Iranian Revolutionary Guard units and without the benefit of U.S. air support, the Baghdad government is sending a not-so-subtle message to the White House that it will accept American aid only on its own terms and consistent with its own political agenda. While there are sound military reasons for moving on Tikrit first as part of a broader campaign to retake Mosul, the Baghdad's government underlying strategy is being shaped by its political agenda with its Sunni citizens, and by the broader issue of Shia-Sunni political relations in Iraq, rather than purely military considerations.

On Friday, March 6 an Iraqi government source, unofficially suggested that an offensive on Mosul might be "several years away". Its unclear whether that comment reflects Baghdad's genuine concern about the difficulty in retaking Mosul or the consequences on its 1.5 million inhabitants or whether it was part of a broader political agenda and the Abadi government's attempt to maneuver between Tehran and Washington.

Washington, Baghdad and Tehran may agree on the need to destroy the Islamic State, but they agree on little else. In the meantime, without a concrete plan to integrate the Sunni community in a meaningful way into the political and economic life of Iraq, the campaign against the Islamic State will be little more than just another chapter in a long and twisted tragedy that will only lead to a continuing cycle of violence and chaos. As for the White House, a policy that is already widely dismissed as incoherent is in serious danger of devolving into irrelevance. A great power can sustain a defeat, but it cannot afford the humiliation of irrelevance.