Failure’ in Fallujah raises stakes for Mosul liberation

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With the battle for Mosul only weeks away, coalition militaries and aid groups say they’ve learned from their mistakes in Fallujah earlier this summer.
By Luke Vargas –
A U.S. army medic oversees a training exercise involving Dutch, Finnish and German soldiers. Erbil, Iraq. August 20, 2016. Photo: U.S. Army Sgtj. Kalie Jones
UNITED NATIONS (Talk Media News) – The battle for Fallujah earlier this summer was meant to be a test run for the larger Mosul campaign. Fallujah was smaller, less dense and closer to Iraqi army bases and humanitarian supply points.

And yet, problems surfaced almost immediately.

Instead of providing a boost of momentum before the Mosul campaign, what followed the military victory was a failure, said the Middle East Institute’s Hassan Mneimneh.

“Fallujah was a pilot project – it was controlled by (Islamic State) the same way Mosul is, and the Iraqi forces could test themselves in terms of being able to manage all the variables that are associated with the Mosul liberation,” he said. “And indeed, even at that smaller scale, their performance was not up to the standard that was expected.”

Humanitarian shortcomings

On the humanitarian front, aid agencies widely miscalculated the number of refugees who would flee the city and had too few resources in place. Harsh weather further compounded the situation and thousands braved sweltering heat with little food, water or other provisions.

The U.S., Iraqi government and United Nations were each the targets of criticism for their slow response even once those problems came to light.

“A Fallujah offensive had been anticipated for the past two and a half years,” the Hudson Institute’s Nina Shea wrote earlier this summer. “How, then, from the minute they were liberated, could tens of thousands of its civilians have been put at risk for illness and death from deprivation of basic necessities?”

Aid groups, like US-based Mercy Corps, cite the difficulties stemming from the Fallujah response in justifying a shift away from providing food and shelter.

“What we’ve seen from what happened in Ramadi and what happened in Fallujah was that 80 percent of displaced Iraqis are not in formal camps, and so for us that means being really nimble,” said Christy Delafield, a spokesperson for Mercy Corps who recently returned from northern Iraq.

Delafield said many Iraqis are tired of frequent displacements have instead chosen to live with family members or sleep in mosques, schools and abandoned buildings. When fighting subsides in their home villages, they’re on the move again.

“The best, most impactful and effective solution is to shift pretty quickly to providing families with cash,” she said. “This gives them the dignity of being able to purchase what they need what they need and it also puts some money back in the local economy.”

Adapting to the problems seen in Fallujah is crucial, but the sheer size of Mosul’s expected refugee population could disrupt even the best intentioned responses.

“When Mosul happens, God help us,” a spokesperson from the Norwegian Refugee Council told the humanitarian news outlet IRIN in June. “What will distinguish us from ISIS if we abandon the very people who fled from them just at the moment they need us most?”

Unwieldy militias

Iranian-backed Shia militias have been a major force in Iraq’s recent history, and their influence loomed large in the lead-up to the campaigns to liberate Ramadi and Fallujah.

In particular, the Iraqi armed forces and U.S. advisors had hoped to be able to exercise control over Shiite “Popular Mobilization Units” during the Fallujah campaign, preventing them from settling scores with the city’s predominantly Sunni population.

But it didn’t take long for allegations to surface of arbitrary detentions, physical abuse and even summary executions carried out by the PMUs. Although reliable information about the precise behavior of the PMUs has been hard to come by, Mneimneh said “we have to suspect that the Popular Mobilization Forces are engaging in effectively, ISIS-like behavior.”

Michael Knights, a security policy analyst at the Washington Institute, concedes that military-aged men fleeing Fallujah were “combed out” of fleeing populations “and sometimes killed,” but he credited the U.S. military with preventing the Fallujah operation from spiraling completely out of control.

The specific role of Shia militias in the Mosul campaign remains up in the air. Senior figures within Mosul’s government-in-exile, military analysts and human rights groups have called for Shia elements to be excluded from the battle. All the while, prominent Shiite generals insist they’ll be on the front lines.

Given Mosul’s size and the diversity of groups living in and around the city, the forthcoming liberation will likely require similar hand-holding and interventions by the U.S. to keep the various military actors involved in check.
Credit: Operation Inherent Resolve/Department of Defense
Credit: Operation Inherent Resolve/Department of Defense

Setting expectations

An added challenge in Mosul comes in the form of the Kurds.

Mosul is sometimes falsely characterized as a Kurdish city – thanks in large part to a period of Kurdish control in the city caused by 2005 elections in which most non-Kurdish candidates boycotted – but it is in fact majority-Sunni.

“If Mosul’s Sunnis stick together, it will be a Sunni-administered city, but whenever they remove themselves from the political process the Kurds take the upper hand,” Knights said.

In something of a best case scenario once the fighting subsides, Knights said the city’s provincial council – which has been operating in exile during the Islamic State’s rule – could “drop right in place” and provide a degree of political legitimacy lacking in either Fallujah or Ramadi.

But the Islamic State’s divisive rule has “smashed ethno-sectarian fabric within the city,” handing the provincial council the unenviable task of dealing with deep suspicions between Mosul’s ethnic groups, particular the Kurds.

That in turn means the U.S. will have to make sure Kurdish forces know their role is to help liberate the city, not control it. Making that clear is something Washington has struggled with of late in Syria.
Kurdish soldiers participate in military exercises led by the U.S. in Atrush, Iraq, July 25, 2016. Photo: U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Peter J. Berardi
Kurdish soldiers participate in military exercises led by the U.S. in Atrush, Iraq, July 25, 2016. Photo: U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Peter J. Berardi

In a recent report for the Heritage Foundation, Luke Coffey and James Philipps urged Pentagon leaders to ensure that Kurdish fighters receive medical treatment and tactical support throughout the battle for Mosul. But they also cautioned U.S. planners from seeing Kurds as a “silver bullet,” noting their reduced effectiveness when operating in Sunni-controlled areas.

“The Arab population is pretty skeptical of the Kurds and in the past has been involved in the wars against the Kurds,” Knights said. “What the Kurds need is rock-solid assurance that Mosul is not going to become a threat.”

“The U.S. guys are trying to start a dialog between Baghdad and the Kurds about the ground rules for what things are going to look like in Mosul and surrounding areas after the liberation,” Knights explained. “They’re hoping that that means the Kurds will feel comfortable enough to let the Sunni majority in Mosul rule themselves without interference and any kind of spoiler behavior.”

It’s unclear that those efforts have been successful, even as the American general leading the fight against the Islamic State suggests the Mosul operation could get underway within a month.

“We don’t know the final plans,” President of Iraqi Kurdistan Masoud Barzani told the Kurdish media outlet Rudaw this week. “It’s changed from the Iraqi side like 45 times. Sometimes [Iraqi] Prime Minister Abadi says it’ll be Shiite militias or someone else liberating Mosul. We need a clear plan.”

Religious minority groups will also be watching the military campaign and subsequent repopulation of liberated areas with concern. Iraqi Christians and Yezidis call several of the towns surrounding Mosul home, but waves of displaced persons could see those villages resettled by new groups.

A lot hinges on success in the battle for Mosul, but like most wars, victory depends on what happens next.

“The real question here is the day after,” said Christy Delafield, a spokesperson for the aid group Mercy Corps. “We need to be thinking about the safety of civilians as they attempt to return home and we need to be thinking about how we rebuild these communities.”

“This is really only the beginning for the recovery phase, and we need to be looking ahead to that now.”

‘Failure’ in Fallujah raises stakes for Mosul liberation