ABOARD A U.S. MILITARY AIRCRAFT — The biggest change in Iraq is the sense of confidence and optimism that leaders have “that absolutely didn’t exist last fall,” Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford said after a full day of meeting with Iraqi, U.S. and other coalition leaders in Baghdad and Irbil.
Dunford noted it is almost a year since his first visit to Iraq after being confirmed as chairman; this was his fifth visit to Iraq since. The one constant has been the topic of discussion: the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
“In the first few visits -- July, October, even into December -- I think there was a lot of angst about whether or not the support they were getting was sufficient, whether they were making the right progress on the right timeline and so on,” Dunford told reporters traveling with him. “The corner kind of turned after the first of the year, but you can really see it know where it’s not a question in their minds of whether they will beat [ISIL] -- it’s a question of when.”
Iraqi leaders are actively planning the Mosul offensive, but they are also making sure they plan for what will happen next. Officials believe what they call the "day after" campaign will be just as important as liberating Iraq’s second-largest city from the clutches of ISIL.
A Complicated Campaign
The Iraqi military has learned the lessons that conducting a military campaign also requires being able to handle internally displaced people and being prepared to go into liberated areas with basic services immediately after the fighting, Dunford said.
The political aims of both Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and Iraqi Kurdistan Region President Masoud Barzani -- both of whom Dunford met during the trip -- coincide on this.
It is not simply a matter of pointing troops toward an objective and yelling, “Charge!” Mosul is a diverse city with Sunni, Shia and Kurd populations; the liberators must be able to manage those populations as well. “Dealing [ISIL] a lasting defeat will require effective stabilization and governance in Mosul,” Dunford said.
And that kind of success depends on Iraqi security forces and Kurdish Peshmerga cooperating fully, which will contribute to whether the people of Mosul “believe they are being liberated by capable forces that are going to respect them,” Dunford said.
Before the fighting season begins, all of those factors will also inform the ongoing operational planning. Iraqi forces and the Peshmerga have to communicate to the people in Mosul to engender a degree of cooperation from the population.
Expectations for the Fight
“There is going to be an inside game and an outside game, he said. “The inside game is to get the support of the people of Mosul, and there are ways to accelerate that support. At the same time, the outside game is Iraqi security forces and the Peshmerga conducting operations.”
The general wouldn’t try to predict what kind of fight there will be for the city, but “it’s clear that [ISIL]’s willingness to hold ground has eroded over time,” he said. “What they will do inside of Mosul is hard to say. They did leave Fallujah in disorder, and they said that themselves.”
An appreciation of the enemy dictates the campaign plan, the general said. After long study of ISIL leadership, Iraqi and U.S. planners “are looking at the trends and making sure the campaign plan they have, sets the conditions for the minimum loss of life.”
No one in Iraq wants a Stalingrad building-by-building fight for the city, Dunford said.
And this requires patience. “This has to be done on an Iraqi timeline,” the chairman added. “And it has to be done in a manner that considers the military piece and the political piece all at the same time.”
Isolating ISIL inside Mosul, tightening the noose around the terrorists, including going after leaders and resources, and eroding the will of the enemy will pay off in the long run, Dunford said.
“Having some tactical patience even as you have a sense of urgency is the right thing to do," he said. "They want to get after it as soon as they can, but setting the conditions will allow us to do it with fewer casualties and more importantly, a lasting effect.”