Mosul’s zero-sum conflict
During the Vietnam War a US officer told the Associated Press that in an offensive against the town of Bên Tre it “became necessary to destroy the town to save it.” As the battle for the Iraqi city of Mosul reaches its denouement, the cost to civilians is spiking, leading to serious scrutiny of an operation originally designed to protect and liberate the civilian population but that has seemingly become overly focused on destroying the Islamic State (ISIS), regardless of the cost to the city and its inhabitants.
Winning a city by destroying it would be a hollow victory and leave more significant challenges for reconciliation in Iraq. Indeed, as the final push on the oldest and most densely populated part of Mosul goes ahead, I would argue that air strikes should not be used at all. An estimated 100,000-200,000 civilians are trapped in this deadly urban pocket as Iraqi government-led forces continue to advance.
The cost that the beleaguered city has had to pay has been intolerably high after almost three years of ISIS occupation and a battle that is more than seven months long. Hundreds of homes have been destroyed and such is the intensity of fighting that more than 400,000 people have been displaced in the last eight weeks.
With 4,500-5,000 leaving the city each day, some 600,000 people have been displaced. Hundreds have been killed. The true figure will only be realised once the fighting has stopped and the rubble reveals the full scale of the carnage.
The monitor group Action on Armed Violence estimates that when explosive weapons are used in populated areas about 92% of casualties are civilian. The United Nations said 12,000 civilians have been injured, including 625 who have lost an arm or a leg, in Mosul.
Groups such as ISIS define themselves by a rejection of the laws and norms of war and use civilians as shields. In Mosul, the Iraqi-led coalition has accused the group of effectively calling in coalition air strikes by having their fighters operate from the roofs of civilian buildings. ISIS tactics include suicide car bombs, booby traps and snipers, which sap morale and steadily build up the casualty cost to the invading forces.
This attrition has led to the continued use of stand-off weaponry such as air strikes and artillery to grind down ISIS positions. The Guardian newspaper’s Ghaith Abdul-Ahad was recently embedded with Iraqi forces fighting in the city and recounted an officer calling in an air strike but then flagging that there were civilians in the house. The response from an Iraqi general; “Operation is a go…. If there’s one [ISIS] fighter in the house, then it’s a go.”
CNN reported that, since the start of 2017, there has been a change in how Iraqi-led forces have conducted the operation. In March, more than 100 civilians were killed in a single airstrike and suddenly the debate about tactics in Mosul became front-page news.
We should be clear that the final moments of the battle for Mosul are the most dangerous for civilians and that the burden of risk must be shouldered by Iraqi soldiers, not civilians when it comes to a choice of tactics.
Refraining from air strikes on the old city will likely mean fewer civilian casualties and less damage to the urban infrastructure of the city.
It will also reflect a genuine priority to protect the civilians of Mosul rather than solely destroying ISIS, which will be a marker for reconciliation efforts ahead.