June 2, 2015
By Dr Rowan Allport – Senior Fellow
Last year’s rout of the Iraqi Army in the northern city of Mosul by ISIS forces – a disaster proceeded by the loss of Fallujah and swiftly followed by the fall of Tikrit and a number of other population centres – represented the nadir of the post-2003 Iraqi state. At the time, as is often the case with such dramatic events, it briefly seemed that it represented an irreversible catastrophe that only heralded worse to come. In the event, Mosul and the more minor triumphs by ISIS that followed in its immediate wake marked the end point of the group’s truly strategic advances in Iraq. Although the recent overrunning of Ramadi may have painted a different picture, the year that has followed the loss of Mosul has – at least in Iraq – largely been marked by military stagnation for ISIS. However, it would be extremely dangerous to underestimate a force whose theological basis for existence is built upon territorial possession and expansion as a prerequisite to an apocalyptic final battle that many of ISIS’s leaders and followers genuinely believe to be on the horizon. Perhaps more importantly, the military defeat of ISIS alone will also not automatically facilitate a remedy to many of the far wider issues in Iraq that led to the group’s ascendency in the first place.
With the benefit of time elapsed, we now have a relatively clear idea of the events that proceeded the loss of Mosul. Unsurprisingly, virtually every mistake that led to the disaster was a direct or indirect result of decisions taken by now former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Much of the immediate blame for ISIS’s successful overrunning of the city can be placed on General Mahdi al-Gharawi, the now former commander of the province in which Mosul is located. Appointed to the post despite the objections of both US and key Iraqi officials, al-Gharawi was an individual who had been facing allegations of mass torture, extra-judicial killings and a variety of other war crimes – only avoiding trial as a result of the protection afforded to him by al-Maliki. Charged with countering the presence of Al-Qaeda in Mosul, the methods adopted by the largely Shia security forces under his command accomplished little beyond alienating the local Sunni population to the point that many of the residents of the city initially welcomed ISIS. Helpfully, in an effort to exonerate himself from responsibility, al-Gharawi has provided a (perfectly plausible) account of the wider circumstances in which he was operating. Iraqi units defending the city were desperately undermanned, and were short of both weapons and ammunition – a widespread phenomenon that resulted from the corruption that became systemic in an Iraqi Security Force that al-Maliki had filled with officers loyal to him. Additionally, many of the Iraqi Army’s best units in the area had been transferred to Anbar to supress a Sunni rebellion that had, in large part, been reignited by al-Maliki’s heavy handedness. The net result of this was that when ISIS launched what they assumed would be a limited raid into Mosul that would last just a few hours, they instead found that the entire city fell to them with minimal resistance.
In the face of ISIS’s advances, the US took the risky but ultimately vindicated decision to hold back from all but minimal intervention in Iraq until al-Maliki departed. However, with his resignation, the US drastically stepped up its air campaign from a limited effort to defend the country’s Yazidis and Kurdish populations to a genuine attempt to assist Iraqi and Kurdish forces in pushing ISIS back. The US was joined in its operations in Iraq by France, the UK, Canada, Australia and a number of other states, many of whom provided non-combat ground forces to ‘advise and assist’ Iraqi and Kurdish troops. The subsequent expansion of the air campaign into Syria also supported the operation against ISIS in Iraq by denying it sanctuary in a neighbouring country.
As expected, whilst Iran has limited its direct involvement in the fighting in Iraq, it has taken every opportunity to influence events. On the ground, the single greatest post-Mosul development in Iraq has been the fielding of the Shia-dominated Popular Mobilisation Forces. Born as the result of an appeal in June 2014 by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani for “volunteers” to defend Iraq, the force is effectively a hodgepodge of various pre-existing and hastily formed Shia militias under the notional control of the Iraqi Ministry of Interior. However, with the Iraqi government lacking command and logistical resources, Iran has partially taken over the task of providing support to these groups. In doing so, it has acquired a considerable ability to influence events, a fact made clear by the presence of Qassem Soleimani – the Iranian commander of the Quds Force special operations unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard – at many of the key post-Mosul battles. Tehran’s involvement in Iraq has also not been restricted to aiding Shia militia, with billions of dollars in supplies – ranging from small arms to ground attack aircraft – having been sent to aid the Iraqi central government and the Kurds. Iran has wasted little time in filling a role that was largely occupied by the US prior to its withdrawal.
However, it has been in ISIS’s greatest reversal of the last year that the limits of Iranian power in Iraq have been most evident. The operation to liberate Tikrit – a city captured by ISIS shortly after the fall of Mosul – began in March 2015. The campaign was a joint effort between the Iraqi Security Forces (fielding roughly 3,000 personnel), the Popular Mobilisation Forces (numbering around 20,000) and a small number of Sunni tribal fighters (around 1,000 personnel). However, the presumably Iranian-initiated effort to cut the US out of the operation backfired badly when it became clear that US air support would be required to take the city at an acceptable cost. Following a request by Iraqi Prime Minister al-Abadi, the US and its allies commenced air strikes against ISIS targets in the city. Although this move resulted in a partial withdrawal of the Iranian-backed militias – an action that the US claimed was a condition for its support in the battle, but the militias argued was a protest at US involvement – the city ultimately fell a few weeks later. Whilst a major victory in of itself, the way in which the battle progressed at the political level would seem to indicate that Iraq’s post-al-Maliki leadership is serious when it says that its relationship with Iran is one of many that it is seeking to balance out of necessity. Whilst in the aftermath of Ramadi’s loss Iraq once again turned to the Shia irregulars, it is important to remember that no matter how ‘Iranian-backed’ a number of these militias are, they are still Iraqi in composition and sustain much of their legitimacy via a powerful nationalistic undercurrent in the country. Iraq is a long way from the Iranian vassal state that many claim it to be.
Tikrit has been only one of a number of setbacks ISIS has suffered in Iraq over the last year, with two of the most notable being the recapture of Dhuluiya and the Kurdish offensive to liberate Zumar. The impact of such successes should not be exaggerated, and US military officials have quite rightly been called out for claiming that the group is on the “defensive” even as it was about to capture Ramadi. The Pentagon has also been criticised for producing a map outlining ISIS’s loss of over a quarter of the territory they held in Iraq since last summer whilst ignoring the group’s gains. However, history proves that it is easy to fall into the trap of assuming that simply being on the offensive is indicative of a force that is in the ascendency, and it is accurate to state that ISIS has come out of the last nine or so months with a net loss. Consequently, it is probably best to focus on the bigger picture rather than individual engagements.
But after Tikrit, perhaps the most obvious question is: what next? Reports indicate that the US and Iraq are divided on the situation, with the US favouring a headlong charge towards Mosul and the Iraqi government favouring an ‘Anbar first’ option. All other things being equal, it would be the US approach that would make most sense. Prussian general and military theorist Carl von Clausewitz’s On War makes it clear that the key to winning a war is to identify and strike at the enemy’s ‘centre of gravity’. This centre can be physical, e.g. a capital city, a commodity or a military formation – or psychological, e.g. an ideology or political issue. In the case of ISIS, its centre of gravity is arguably its credibility: insurgents from Nigeria to Pakistan are not declaring their allegiance to the group because of any physical support it could provide them, and thousands of Western Muslims are not heading to fight with them because there was no militant Islamic movement in Iraq or Syria before ISIS came into being. Instead, it is in large part simply the case that ISIS is perceived as having been far more successful than any of its predecessors, and people are attracted to a winner. Given that much of ISIS’s credibility is tied up in its capture and holding of Mosul – indeed, it was only in the aftermath of the city’s fall that the group was willing to risk declaring its ‘caliphate’ – it is fair to say that it represents the physical embodiment of the group’s centre of gravity. Recapture Mosul, and a huge blow would be dealt to ISIS. Happily, the group’s possession of Mosul also lines up with their ‘critical vulnerability’, i.e. its central weakness that leaves the centre of gravity open to being neutralised. In the case of ISIS, this is the fact that the organisation is fundamentally an insurgent group masquerading as a state. In normal circumstances, it would be unable to hold territory in the face of a functional state actor.
It is of course on this latter point that the US inclination towards heading straight for Mosul falls apart. Of the two main state actors opposing ISIS, Iraq can hardly be described as ‘functional’, and the US is unwilling to fully employ the power at its disposal to do the job. We are therefore presented with a situation where an inability and unwillingness to exploit the enemy’s critical vulnerability is resulting in a failure to threaten their centre of gravity in the short term. This ugly fact is, in the main, behind the calls from some high profile foreign policy figures in Washington for the introduction of a limited number of front line US ground troops to speed events along. There are lesser points of weakness that the US is willing to press: the recent Special Forces in Syria raid that saw the death of ISIS financier Abu Sayyaf paid heed to the rule that insurgencies – no matter how driven by perceived divine purpose they are – ultimately run on money, not magic. But such efforts are unlikely to decisively change the course of events on the ground any time soon.
However, on closer examination, an initial focus on taking back ISIS territory in Anbar province in the west of Iraq as opposed to Mosul in the north actually has considerably more to offer than it simply being the only viable option. Firstly, whilst Mosul and the area surrounding it are long since lost, a number of key locations in Anbar are still in contention. Most notable amongst them are Al-Asad air base, a huge facility that houses around 400 US troops tasked with providing training and support to Iraqi personnel, and the Iraqi Security Forces base at Habbaniyah. It was this latter facility that saw a Popular Mobilisation Force, Iraqi government troops and Sunni fighters launch a counteroffensive a week after Ramadi’s fall last month. Given this, and the facts that both Ramadi and Fallujah each have a population considerably smaller than that of Mosul and are far closer to Baghdad, their recapture – whilst both difficult militarily and a sectarian disaster in the making if badly handled – should prove to be less of a challenge than any move against the northern city.
Secondly, prioritising Anbar will also give an opportunity to start to address the deeper issues facing Iraq. Politically, the ascendance of ISIS to its current level of power can in large part be blamed on the breakdown of relations between Iraq’s minorities and the central government. Again, the man most singularly responsible for this was Nouri al-Maliki. Following his resignation, his replacement, Haider al-Abadi, has presided over some significant successes – notably the appointment of a more inclusive cabinet and reaching an agreement with the Kurds concerning oil revenue. In addition, he has helped dispel some of the tensions between Iraq and the Gulf Kingships: Saudi Arabia intends to open an embassy in Baghdad for the first time in nearly twenty-five years. However, al-Abadi has also struggled in rebuilding relations with Iraq’s Sunnis, the group from which ISIS has drawn its support in the country. Currently at the centre of these problems are efforts to construct an Iraqi National Guard, in part recruited from Sunni tribes. Whilst the legislation to support such a move was given cabinet support earlier this year, wider progress has been slow, partly as a result of legitimate concerns that such an organisation could cause long-term divisions in Iraq. Initial efforts are seeing thousands of Sunni fighters brought under the umbrella of the existing Popular Mobilisation Unit system. But given that there is an unavoidable need for Iraq to replicate a movement on the scale of the Sunni Awakening Council movement which helped to bring Al-Qaeda in Iraq to the brink of defeat prior to the end of the US occupation, it is questionable as to whether this strategy will prove adequate. Complaints from Sunni tribes that it was the Iraqi government’s failure to support them that led to the loss of Ramadi are an additional unencouraging sign. There is also now the complicating factor of the Baghdad government’s post-Ramadi decision to deploy Shia-dominated irregulars to Anbar.
Ultimately, however, militias are not the answer to Iraq’s problems. Only when the country’s conventional security forces are fully overhauled will sovereignty broadly rest with the central government. Dozens of senior officers have been sacked in an attempt to purge the most corrupt and incompetent elements of the military’s leadership. But as with the political system, removing those at the top who have failed will prove to be only the first step. Since their return to Iraq in late 2014, US personnel have reported that the Iraqi Army has fallen into a catastrophic state of disrepair since the 2011 departure of US forces. Currently, an army that once numbered 280,000 may now have around half that number of personnel, with many lacking basic training. As a result, whilst the next few months are likely to consist of a series of scrappy engagements in Anbar and north of Baghdad, preparations are now being made to put the Iraqi state on a more secure military footing in order to enable it to sustain a successful offensive campaign. Forces from the US and its allies are now engaged in a large scale training programme of Iraqi ground forces in an effort to undo the damage inflicted by the al-Maliki administration. With 3,000 personnel in Iraq, the US contingent is unsurprisingly the largest. Currently, the focus is on training twelve Iraqi Army and three Kurdish brigades – around 45,000 troops – as a spearhead force for use against ISIS in Iraq. By April 2015, two brigades had completed training and a further three were in the midst of the programme. To fund this effort, the US has budgeted $1.6bn over a two year period. However, even once completed, this force will likely require further augmentation before it is of sufficient strength to take Mosul. Additional equipment – ranging from vast quantities of ammunition to tanks – is also in the pipeline. The last year has also seen a rush of aircraft deliveries to the Iraqi Air Force, including Mi-28 and Mi-35 attack helicopters and Su-25 ground attack aircraft from Russia. US-built F-16 fighters should be joining them this summer.
Exactly how long it will take to complete the recapture of ISIS territory in Iraq is open to question. The current back-and-forth between ISIS and the Iraq government will not swing decisively toward the latter holding the advantage until Iraq’s ground forces have had time to further recover, and major progress has been made with regards to integrating the country’s Sunni population into the wider security and stabilisation strategy. But even given progress towards these long-term goals, more specific short-term problems abound. In Iraq, the slow overall progress against ISIS and recent reversals are undermining the authority of Prime Minister al-Abadi, running the risk that other more sectarian Shia could attempt to move against him. The US war effort is hampered by interagency fighting and a weak presidential administration. Public spats between the allies are also proving to be a pointless distraction. Ultimately, Iraq’s hopes rest not on material issues – with sufficient time, conviction and coordination, Iraq, the US and its allies have the resources to crush ISIS – but on the wisdom and will of the political leadership in Baghdad and Washington. If Iraq’s long-term prospects have brightened noticeably since the dark summer of 2014, its path to that future is still filled with uncertainty.