Last week, in a briefing to reporters, the Pentagon announced that it planned an offensive against Mosul in late spring. But why? Normally you don’t telegraph military plans months in advance.
Joshua Rovner and Caitlin Talmadge suggest two related reasons. First, the U.S. might have decided that Iraqi security is so shoddy that surprise was never in the cards. “Given the notoriously poor operational security of the Iraqi Army,” they say, “the chances of keeping secret any Iraqi-led campaign were poor anyway.”
Beyond that, they speculate that the Pentagon hoped to accomplish something by sending a message:
The United States may be speaking more to its coalition partners and Iraqi counterparts than to the Islamic State….The United States might be trying to signal its own trustworthiness as a partner, stiffen the backs of unmotivated Iraqi forces, create a fait accompli with regards to campaign planning, or some combination of the above. In short, it may be aiming its communications at targets other than the Islamic State.
One can also sense a sort of “heads we win, tails you lose” logic to the U.S. public messages about Mosul. If the Islamic State forces uncharacteristically flee without a fight, they will face humiliation and a setback to their claims of control in Iraq. That’s a win, at least operationally, for Washington and Baghdad. Conversely, if the Islamic State decides to stand its ground and starts trying to flow reinforcements to Mosul in preparation for the defense of the city, that could be a good thing operationally, too. These forces will be highly vulnerable to the stepped-up coalition air attacks, which are already seriously threatening the militants’ lifeline between Raqqa and Mosul. Sending reinforcements to Mosul will also draw Islamic State resources away from Syria, where the coalition’s ability to fight is much more constrained, and into Iraq, where that ability is more robust.
Hmmm. Maybe. After all, we announced the “shock and awe” campaign for weeks prior to the start of the Iraq War in 2003. The hope, presumably, was to scare the Iraqis so badly that they’d essentially give up and flee before the battle even started. It didn’t really work, but no one complained about it at the time.
There will be no shock and awe this time, though. Just a lot of grubby, house-to-house fighting led by Iraqi Shiite forces that are probably not very motivated to sacrifice their lives in order to return Mosul to Sunni control. Will it work? I can’t say I’m optimistic. But I’ve been wrong before. Maybe I am again.