July 8, 2016

The battle after Fallujah - an Iraqi strategy shift?

Iraqi Army officers and dead ISIS fighters in al-Fallujah, al-Anbar province

After a month of intense fighting between fighters of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and a mixture of Iraqi security forces supported by Iranian-backed Shi'a militias and U.S.-led airpower, the city of Fullajah (al-Fallujah, الفلوجة‎‎) is now back under Iraqi government control. The city had been occupied by ISIS since January 2014 - Fallujah was the first major Iraqi city to fall to the group.

As with previous Iraqi military operations aimed at retaking cities from ISIS - Ramadi, Tikrit, Bayji, etc. - it took much longer than predicted and has reduced substantial sections of the city to little more than rubble. The areas not devastated by airstrikes, bombing, artillery and street-to-street fighting is riddled with booby traps and mines. It will be weeks, possibly months before the city is inhabitable by its former residents.

The liberation of Fallujah came against the backdrop of a series of high-profile bombings in and around the city of Baghdad. The government of Prime Minister Haydar al-'Abadi was criticized for allocating resources to the fighting in Fallujah at the perceived expense of security in Baghdad. Al-'Abadi maintained that the operations in Fallujah would increase public safety in Baghdad since he believed that many of the bombings in the capital were planned in and staged from Fallujah.

Almost immediately after the initial government claims of victory in Fallujah, Iraqi military leaders declared that they are planning a military operation to retake Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city. Mosul has been in ISIS hands since they seized it from a hollow, weakened Iraqi Army in June of 2014. That statement was echoed by a few American senior officers currently "advising and assisting" Iraqi forces.

The proposed timeline - Mosul back under government control by the end of this year - in my opinion is exceedingly optimistic. The Iraqi Army has still not regained its competence since its humiliating defeat in Mosul in 2014.

The Iraqi Army collapsed not because ISIS was such a superior military force, but because Iraqi forces had atrophied due to the devastating policies of former Prime Minster Nuri al-Maliki following the complete - and I believe premature - withdrawal of American troops from the country at the end of 2011.

The withdrawal was the result of the failure of the United States to secure an updated status of forces agreement that would allow the continued presence of a limited number of American troops in the country to assist with the training and development of Iraqi security forces. In my opinion, the Obama Administration was so anxious to leave Iraq that it ignored the still tenuous security situation in the country.

On July 3, in retaliation for the Iraqi government's successful retaking of Fallujah, ISIS detonated two truck bombs in Baghdad, one in the upscale Shi'a neighborhood of Karradah and one in the less affluent Sha'ab neighborhood. The death toll from the bombings has reached almost 300. The blasts - the deadliest since the 2003 invasion - have caused anger and fear in the city.

Much of the anger has been directed at the prime minister - his claims that removing ISIS from Fallujah would make Baghdad safer now ring hollow. The two suicide bombers mounted their attacks from Diyala province, located to the east and northeast of Baghdad, not from Fallujah in al-Anbar province to the west. Again, the residents have called on the government to provide security for the city.

Iraqi political leaders and military planners are now reassessing their strategy. Given the continued presence of ISIS fighters in Diyala province and the group's demonstrated capability to mount large-scale attacks in central Baghdad, Iraqi leaders may now opt to completely clear Diyala province of ISIS prior to moving its forces north for the eventual assault on Mosul. The residents of Baghdad are more concerned about their own security than an artificial timeline to retake Mosul.

ISIS has taken a page from the manual of asymmetric warfare - they have been successful in creating a "significant emotional event" that has caused the Iraqi government to reassess its strategy. If the leadership in Baghdad postpones its plans to mount an attack on ISIS in Mosul and instead focuses its immediate attention on the ISIS presence in Diyala, that gives ISIS more time to develop its defenses for what it knows will be the definitive battle in the country.

It is merely a delaying tactic, to be sure. The Iraqis, with support from the U.S.-led coalition and Iranian-supported Shi'a militias, will eventually marshal the forces and resources necessary to retake Mosul. However, it does appear that ISIS has forced Baghdad to reassess its strategy.