Mosul, after months of military “shaping” operations, is now squarely in the sights of a growing array of armed forces, most of whom have a sorry history of battling each other when they are not fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS).
Iraq’s second largest city, with a population of nearly two million, now occupies centre stage in the international effort to destroy the ISIL caliphate.
“The noose has been tightening around Mosul for now probably seven or eight weeks with the performance of the Iraqi security forces (ISF),” explained the top United States military official, General Joseph Dunford, in a recent news conference.
Putting ISIL on the back foot is in itself a difficult, if manageable task. Yet Washington and the coalition it leads have set their sights far higher.
In the words of US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, “It’s important to show that there cannot be and will not be an Islamic State based upon this ideology … [I]t’s important that we destroy the fact of and the idea of an Islamic State.”
US President Barack Obama would no doubt like to leave the White House in January 2017 as the slayer of the caliphate in word as well as deed.
As part of the run-up to the coming battle, Washington is praising Iraqi efforts to reclaim the initiative from ISIL. “Overall in Iraq, we’ve liberated about 50 percent of the territory from ISIL and more than 700,000 Iraqis have returned to their homes in areas that ISIL used to control,” explained Brett McGurk, Obama’s anti-ISIL coalition ambassador recently.
The campaign against ISIL is going so well that Obama, against his own instincts, has deferred to his generals’ desire to escalate US involvement in preparation for the coming battle.
The addition of 560 American troops will bring the total declared US military complement in Iraq – which was reduced to zero in 2011 from more than 100,000 – to 4,647.
As much as Mosul's residents pray for liberation, and despite cheerleading from Washington and the Gulf, there is no credible Sunni or Anbari tribal force capable of influencing the upcoming battle.
Indeed military escalation, featuring small but growing American or European “boots on the ground” in deployments now being measured in decades – rather than an ever-elusive victory – is Obama’s legacy everywhere the battle against ISIL is being joined. This is not only in Iraq but also in Syria, Afghanistan and Libya.
The ISF are said to be primed for battle, thanks in part to yet another expensive US effort to train and assist. This time, unlike the past, we are assured that it is really working.
Those who remember failed US efforts to stand up a new Iraqi military in the wake of the destruction of Saddam’s army can be forgiven a sense of deja vu. What exactly has changed to make today’s rosy evaluations any more credible?
Whatever the fighting merits of the latest version of the ISF, they are not the only force mobilising for Mosul’s liberation.
The Peshmerga of the Kurdistan Regional Government have recently been fortified by an almost half a billion dollars aid and arms package.
Other forces allied to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) have also declared a readiness to join in the battle in Mosul and its spoils.
More than a year ago Mosul’s exiled governor revealed that Turkish special forces were training both Iraqi and Syrian Turkmen to recapture the city.
For more than two years, Turkey itself has deployed forces in Bashiqa, 32km north of Mosul.
Late last year, 150 Turkish soldiers and 20 tanks were deployed to the base, which continues to operate despite Baghdad’s opposition.
Syrian sources note that even the People’s Protection Units (YPG) are prepared to return the favour of those who fought in Kobane, to stake claim to a share of Mosul’s territorial spoils, to the consternation of Baghdad.
The Shia militia group Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, a constituent part of the Popular Mobilization Forces, has warned of the consequences if the Peshmerga participate in the anti-ISIL campaign. In contrast, it claims that the participation by the PMF will speed victory in Mosul as it has elsewhere throughout Anbar.
Iraqi Defence Minister Khaled al-Obeidi appears to have other ideas. Concerning the role of the PMF, he suggested opaquely that its participation would be determined by “military plans and a decision by the commander-in-chief”.
As for the Kurds, “We won’t even let them take part in the liberation of the city.”
As much as Mosul’s residents pray for liberation, and despite cheerleading from Washington and the Gulf, there is no credible Sunni or Anbari tribal force capable of influencing the forthcoming battle.
US-promoted efforts to establish a Baghdad-supported National Guard have gone nowhere and the idea of a new “awakening” is “a fantasy”, according to Mark Perry, who has long ties with Anbari forces.
Their leadership and cadre have been so weakened by conflict since 2003 that they are at best capable of making only a marginal contribution to post-conquest stabilisation efforts.
The very prospect of liberation itself, embraced with enthusiasm in Washington and elsewhere, is unfortunately viewed by many Maslawis as worse than remaining under ISIL.
“The primary fear of Maslawis,” notes a recent paper published by the Royal Uniformed Services Institute (RUSI), “appears to be not continued IS[IL] rule, but a vengeful Shia army descending into the city.”
Washington is unmatched in its ability to define what needs to be done “the day after” a military victory is achieved in Mosul.
“We have it in sight,” explained McGurk last week in a Washington briefing, “but we have to do it right. Militarily, it has to be very well planned. We have to have a stabilisation plan ready to go and resourced. We have to have a humanitarian plan ready to go and resourced. And we have to have a governance plan. The local governance plan has to be ready to go.”
But Washington’s claim to knowing what needs to be done is betrayed by its recent record in Iraq.
In any case, “knowing” is hardly the same as “doing” what needs to be done. Even the best of plans, including those prepared by the whiz kids at the Pentagon or the new and enthusiastic “stabilisation” experts at Foggy Bottom, never survive the first shot.
That has certainly been the sad experience of US planning for Iraq, an investment of trillions of dollars and the expenditure and untold human capital that in Mosul has brought everyone back to square one.
Geoffrey Aronson writes about Middle Eastern affairs. He consults with a variety of public and private institutions dealing with regional political, security, and development issues.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.