WASHINGTON — The battle for Mosul ultimately will be the biggest U.S. operation in Iraq since the end of the last war.
That was Monday’s message from Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford, who said multinational forces have begun to cut off the city’s supply and communications lines, and to encircle and isolate Islamic State fighters with cyber and air and ground attacks. Some coalition forces are already going after ISIS inside Mosul, and the final thrust to retake it should be expected sooner than the distant future, Dunford said.
Carter and Dunford spoke just a few days after President Barack Obama said he directed the military to continue to “accelerate” the war against ISIS “on all fronts.”
U.S. leaders say Mosul, along with the Syrian city of Raqqa, is the heart and headquarters of ISIS. Coalition assaults on these cities, and replacing ISIS with local, vetted leaders, will break the group’s grip on Iraqi territory and end its ability to inspire or direct terrorist attacks abroad.
Rather than sending brigades of U.S. forces to reinvade Mosul, the Obama administration has deployed special operators to target ISIS leaders and dispatched thousands of advisors, who have spent months preparing Iraqi, Kurd, and other local forces to do the job. The strategy has drawn blistering criticism from seasoned diplomats, former generals, and Republican leaders and presidential candidates, who have argued that greater U.S. military intervention could have broken ISIS sooner and saved innocents.
Still, the push into Mosul will require more American forces than were involved in the recent retaking of the southern Iraqi city of Ramadi, and will be shaped by lessons from that earlier campaign. Carter said he expected Americans to provide more logistics and “bridging” forces; Dunford said U.S. and Iraqi troops are preparing logistics and resupply points for Iraqi fighters as they make their way into the city.
“The operations against Mosul have already started,” Dunford said at the Pentagon on Monday. “In other words, you know, we’re isolating Mosul, even as we speak—the same thing with Raqqa. So it is not something that will happen in the deep, deep future.”
Ben Watson | Defense One
“People have confused, maybe, ‘When would Mosul be secure?’ with ‘When will operations start?’ I would tell you both, both in terms of the cyber capability as the secretary spoke about as well as operations to cut the line of communications and begin to go after some of the targets in and around Mosul, those operations have already started,” Dunford said.
Dunford said Iraqi military leaders have presented their plan for attacking Mosul to Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland, the senior American commander in their country. “And now there is a process going on where Gen. MacFarland is looking at the Iraqi plan, working with [U.S. Central Command] to make recommendations as to what we can do.”
“I, like the secretary, think we would do more in Mosul than Ramadi just because of the order of magnitude of the operation in Mosul would indicate to me that we would have more U.S. support in Mosul than we did in Ramadi,” said Dunford.
Carter said the fight is being affected by the additional “expeditionary targeting force” of special operators the Pentagon deployed last year, but declined to say how. The group was sent to to conduct specialized raids, kill high-ranking terrorists, free hostages, and “seize places and people.” At the time, U.S. officials said the group’s missions would remain largely secret; virtually no information has since been released. On Monday, CNN reported only that the U.S. Army’s Delta Force had begun operations.
“The only thing I’ll say is the ETF is in position, it is having an effect and operating, and I expect it to be a very effective part of our acceleration campaign. I don’t have any more on that,” said Carter.
Carter formally announced that Lt. Gen. Raymond “Tony” Thomas would take command of U.S. Special Operations Command, succeeding Gen. Joseph Votel, whom Defense One first reported was the president’s choice to take over U.S. Central Command. Thomas is commander of the secretative Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC.
Meanwhile, U.S. forces are waging a cyber offensive to cut or spy on ISIS communications in Mosul. Carter said cyber attacks are being used “to interrupt [and] disrupt ISIL’s command and control, to cause them to lose confidence in their networks, to overload their network so that they can’t function, and do all of these things that will interrupt their ability to command and control forces there, control the population and the economy.”
Carter declined to provide specifics, saying again that success would depend on secrecy. “I’ll be one of the first ones arguing that that’s about all we should talk about. Most importantly, we don’t want the enemy to know when, where, and how we’re conducting cyber operations. We don’t want them to have information that will allow them to adapt over time. We want them to be surprised when we conduct cyber operations,” he said.
U.S. officials do not want ISIS to be able to tell, for example, whether service disruptions are being caused by American cyber attacks or merely reflect the vagaries of everyday Internet usage.
The runup to the Mosul fight has included the seizure of the Syrian town of al-Shadadi, which helped to cut off the Iraqi city from Raqqa, Obama’s counter-ISIS chief at the State Department, Brett McGurk, said last week. The town was retaken by thousands of fighters, about 60 percent of whom were Kurdish.
“We are focused on eliminating the enemy in Raqqa every single day. We’re doing airstrikes there constantly,” McGurk said. “We know more now than we ever did before, and we’re beginning to constrict [the coalition’s] hold on Raqqa.”
Carter called Shadadi “a critical node for ISIL training and logistics, as well as for its oil enterprise. As our partners take control of Shadadi, I believe we will learn a great deal more about ISIL’s criminal networks, its criminal enterprise, and what it does to sustain them.”
McGurk said the Mosul push will be guided from a new joint operations center in Makhmur, southwest of the Kurdish capital of Irbil. The coalition also has forces in Sinjar, Hit, and al-Assad Air Base to the south, a key special operations launching point which has remained under U.S. and Iraqi control.
“Because of our strategy and our determination to accelerate our campaign, momentum is now on our side and not on ISIL’s,” Carter said.
Back in the United States, the ISIS war has all but vanished from media coverage in the runup to the Super Tuesday presidential primaries. In an attempt on Thursday to get some good news into the news, Obama said, “ISIL fighters are learning that they’ve got no safe haven. We can hit them anywhere, anytime — and we do. In fact, ISIL still has not had a single successful major offensive operation in Syria or Iraq since last summer. And we continue to go after ISIL leaders and commanders — taking them out, day in, day out, one after another after another.”
Fresh troops from the 82nd Airborne Division already are rotating into Iraq, Carter said.