Why can’t Iraq keep a date with ISIS?
On April 30, Iraqi Army Chief of Staff Lieutenant-General Othman al-Ghanmi told the state-run newspaper al-Sabah that fighting in Mosul against Islamic State (ISIS) militants should end “in a maximum of three weeks.” That means that Mosul, ISIS’s last major urban stronghold in Iraq, should be completely recaptured by May 21.
Though the end of military operations in Iraq’s second city will certainly be welcome to many, not least Mosul’s inhabitants, we should not be overly optimistic. After all, Iraq has a long record of making promises it could not fulfil and setting dates that it simply could not keep regarding ISIS.
In March 2015, Karim al-Nuri, a top commander with the Badr Organisation, one of the main contingents of the Shia-dominated Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), said the fighting to retake Tikrit would take no more than “72 hours.” Instead of three days, it took the army and the Shia fighters more than a month to recapture a city far smaller in size and population than Mosul in the north.
Before the operation to recapture Mosul began in earnest on October 17, 2016, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi promised the city would be back under government control by New Year’s Day. While fireworks were colouring the skies around the world in celebration of the new year, the only things detonating in Mosul were Iraqi Army vehicles, ISIS car bombs and Abadi’s massively exaggerated promises.
By the beginning of the year, Iraqi forces, including the state-sanctioned, pro-Iran PMF, had failed to secure the eastern bank of the Tigris River, which bisects the city from north to south. They had a long way to go before they breached the western half of the city, which is far older and far more problematic for modern fighting vehicles to access due to its ageing infrastructure.
The Iraqi government’s failure to secure Mosul within Abadi’s deadline led Lieutenant-General Talib Shaghati, the head of Iraq’s special forces, to state in an interview with the Associated Press in January that the operation to retake the city could be completed in three months or less. That would have meant that the city would have been recaptured by mid-April at the latest.
Shaghati’s opinion and optimism seemed to have been shared by Masrour Barzani, the head of the Kurdistan Regional Government’s Security Council, who said days earlier on Twitter that ISIS was “on the verge of collapse.” If one were to believe what Iraqi officials were saying, he would be completely at ease in the misplaced belief that victory was near.
Again, however, ISIS was still standing and still inflicting devastating losses on Iraqi forces. Late in April, Al Jazeera reported that an Iraqi government source had confirmed that about 8,000 soldiers had been killed since the Mosul operation began and that figure did not include PMF Shia militants. No casualty figure was quoted but the wounded are expected to equal or exceed the number of the dead, meaning ISIS has inflicted massive force attrition on the already weak Iraqi military.
Considering Iraq’s record of catastrophically underestimating ISIS and massively miscalculating how long it takes to defeat the militant group, it would be wise to take claims that the fighting will be over in a week with a fistful of salt. Abadi has never managed to keep a date with ISIS so far and there is little to suggest that he or the Iraqi armed forces will be able to do so this time.