April 19, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: Mission Creep Amid Political Turmoil in Iraq

• U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter visited Baghdad on April 18 as preparations increase for the battle of Mosul and its aftermath

• The Pentagon announced that it will send an additional 200 soldiers to Iraq, some of whom will be serving as advisors down to the battalion level

• The remainder of the 200 troops will operate and maintain Apache attack helicopters and the high-mobility artillery rocket system, in a sign that the U.S. is ramping up its direct combat support to the slowly advancing Iraqi forces

• The increased military presence coincides with increased political instability in Iraq—an ominous reminder that any military victory without lasting social and political reforms will lead to yet another long-term defeat.


The U.S. military announced it would increase the number of its personnel in Iraq by another 217, bringing the number of full-time personnel in the country to 4,087 (not including the hundreds of Special Operation Forces and those assigned temporarily). The increase is the latest indication that preparations for the battle of Mosul are ramping up, and that U.S. troops will play a significant supporting role in the coming campaign.

The increase in advisors will enable the U.S. to embed troops down to the battalion level as Iraqi forces edge closer to Mosul, held by the so-called Islamic State since June 2014. The presence of U.S. forces at that level will provide the still-shaky Iraqi military with badly needed close air support and accurate artillery fire. The U.S. Apache attack helicopters will now take part in combat operations, as will the high-mobility artillery rocket system (HIMARS), which delivers large numbers of munitions at great distance and with great accuracy. The importance of this coordinated fire support was evident in the Ramadi campaign and will be even more central in Mosul.

The methodical buildup to the Mosul campaign is a sign of both the operation’s challenges and its necessity. Taking Mosul from the Islamic State will be one thing; holding and governing the city is an entirely different challenge. With increased U.S. and coalition support—such as the $415 million the U.S. is giving to help resupply and pay the Kurdish peshmerga, who have played a large role in the fight against the Islamic State—Iraqi forces are improving the odds of success, while avoiding overreach and premature action. 

If the military outlook for an eventual Mosul campaign is relatively positive—with certain, but surmountable, setbacks—the political, social, and economic outlook for the country as a whole is decidedly negative. Even the most decisive military victory in Mosul will be short-lived if the factors that gave rise to the current violence and turmoil remain unresolved. The government of Prime Minister al-Abadi is facing its strongest test since assuming power in August 2014. Both the U.S. and Iranian governments continue to support al-Abadi, but factions in the parliament are objecting to the proposed composition of his cabinet. A move last week to remove Speaker Salim al-Jabouri (which failed, but barely, due to the lack of a quorum) further threw the parliament into disarray. On April 18, thousands of Iraqis again marched to the Green Zone to protest the government's persistent dysfunction and corruption—two issues that did not cause the Islamic State, but certainly enabled its rise and are helping it linger. Influential cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has given an April 19 deadline for the government to appoint non-party technocrats to help fight the systemic governmental corruption. It remains uncertain if the government will act within that timeframe, or the impact of mass demonstrations should it fail to do so.

Without true political and social reform, the battle against the Islamic State in Mosul will be repeated elsewhere in a few years. Unfortunately, reform of this scale in a traumatized and divided nation is as unlikely as it is vital. Planning and executing the military campaign against Mosul—an enormous challenge—is only the first step towards bringing Iraq back from its current state of instability and violence. 


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