Since its launch this October, the Battle of Mosul has been repeatedly hyped as the largest U.S.-backed military operation since the withdrawal from Iraq.
It is frequently referred to as a collaborative effort, enlisting tens of thousands of fighters forming a coalition whose purpose is to eliminate ISIS around the city and secure the future of a stable Iraq.
“The Shia Militia is taking over the fight around Mosul. The worry is that they are attempting to fuel a sectarian war.”
However once past the surface, it’s clearly not a cohesive coalition but rather a series of independent groups — all vying for their own regional objectives.
Conversations with two recently returned U.S. military special operators point to these disparate groups as a major point of concern.
They say we have less control and influence on events than we’re being lead to believe — which has the potential to make the region even more volatile after the city is liberated.
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Meanwhile the Kurds (one of our most reliable military partners in the region) have been seizing ground for two years as they seek to establish their own state in defiance of both Turkey and Iraq.
And it appears the Obama administration has not prepared to handle this powder keg — kicking the can down the road for the incoming administration.
Sectarian reprisal represents the most immediate concern since residents of Mosul are almost entirely followers of Sunni Islam, which is also the sect of ISIS.
The Iraqi Army and much of the militias who are doing the “wet work” are Shiite Muslims.
Iran has gained considerable influence in Iraq through their support of Shiite militias — now numbering an estimated 100,000 strong.
Currently, they are engaged in a brutal house-to-house fight that is producing extremely high numbers of casualties. The Shiite areas of the country many Iraqi militiamen hail from have recently been subjected to sectarian attacks. So when the actual battle winds down, there will be no love lost between the victors and those they have defeated. Throw in several hundred years of sectarian conflict between the two groups, highlighted by outright religious war in Iraq barely a decade ago, and this has all the ingredients for an atrocity.
Since we have been backing these militias with air power, training, and combat support, we not only own their success or failure on the battlefield, but what they do “the day after.”
One recently returned U.S. special operations member, who asked not to be named, says these concerns are shared in theater as well. “The Shia Militia is taking over the fight around Mosul. The worry is that they are attempting to fuel a sectarian war.”
Has our current administration thought about this scenario? Can some roughly 5,000 American troops possibly control the actions of more than 100,000 militiamen? While this undoubtedly would have a negative impact on the U.S. reputation and influence abroad, a bigger question is who would benefit.
Growing Iranian Influence
The increase of Iranian military involvement and influence in Iraq should also be a chief concern for the incoming administration. Information released by the Obama administration appears to deliberately leave out Iranian troop numbers, while readily providing precise numbers of ISIS fighters.
However, going back to March 2015, the Kurdish authority accused Iran of sending upward of 30,000 troops into the country to assist the Iraqi government in its fight. In August 2016, a senior U.S. defense official reported that there were approximately “100,000 Iranian-backed militia” in Iraq, under the command of the “Quds Force” — more generically known as Iranian Special Forces. This is the same Iranian organization that the U.S. military holds directly responsible for killing some 500 Americans during the Iraq War. While the real numbers aren’t necessarily clear to the American public, they dwarf U.S. troop figures, which stand at some 5,000.
Another special operations source put it bluntly: “Look at who in the region has the presence of force: Is it us — or is it the Iranians?” His cynicism is not without merit.
The heavy number of Shiite militias alone shows Iraq and its Shiite government being largely enmeshed with Iran.
One could make the argument our influence on Iraq has been effectively supplanted.
Iraq’s Shiite militias have direct representation in Iraqi parliament and as a result exert influence on both policy and the constitutional process. Since they are funded, trained, and often led by the Iranian military, it is clear that Iran now has a direct influence on the government of Iraq. Is this what the Obama administration wants?
It was bad enough watching much of Iraq fall back into the hands of the very Sunni militants so many Americans died fighting during the Iraq War. It would be far worse to see this country, a former enemy of Iran, slip into the orbit of our chief regional adversary and in effect into the orbit of a global adversary: Russia.
The Kurdish Question
It has been widely known for decades that the Kurds wish to carve out their own state in an area that consists of parts of northern Iraq, eastern Turkey, and western Iran. The Kurds have been arguably our most effective proxy to date in not only the fight against ISIS, but also to the success of U.S. military operations in northern Iraq since the first Gulf War.
None of the countries which contain a Kurdish presence wish to see them attain statehood. Turkey and its Kurdish population have been locked in a low-intensity conflict for decades and Turkey has a significant military presence on the northern outskirts of Mosul, adjacent to the Kurds.
Further complicating matters, when the Iraqi government and military was reeling from the ISIS invasion in 2014, the Kurds defended and then annexed the city of Kirkuk. Kirkuk is a major producer of oil in Iraq, integral to the economic success of the country or to a yet-to-be-established “Kurdistan.” What will happen if the Iraqi government asks for the return of its city? The Kurds have no desire to return any lands gained in the fight against ISIS.
What happens if the Kurds say no and declare their own state? Do we turn our back on one of our most effective military allies in the region — or do we support them and turn our back on Iraq and our NATO ally Turkey? A worst-case scenario could involve Turkey declaring war on the Kurds and eventually entangling us in a regional war under Article 5 of the NATO treaty.
While they don’t publicly appear to be, it’s possible people in the Obama administration have been focused on these issues.
Or, as with other issues pertaining to the rise of ISIS, perhaps they’re deliberately avoiding the truth. It’s unclear. But since Obama’s policies in the region have been catastrophic, the latter is likely a good bet.
What is clear is the day after Mosul is liberated, the incoming Trump administration will inherit a complex scenario of weakened regional influence of the United States — and also a potential powder keg threatening to embroil us in a regional war.
We can only hope that the incoming administration will take over fully prepared to deal with “the day after Mosul.”
Jim Webb Jr. served as an enlisted Marine Corps infantryman and lives in Baltimore, Md.