We spoke with current and former US military officials about how Iraq and its allies broke ISIS’s nearly 3-year grip on Iraq's second city — and what comes next.
The bloody battle to wrest Mosul from ISIS was the largest military operation of the past decade. To better understand how it was fought, we spoke to Brig. Gen. Rick Uribe, deputy commanding general for U.S.-led coalition forces in Iraq; and retired U.S. Army Col. David Witty, a Special Forces veteran who spent years training elite Iraqi soldiers. These conversations are woven into the story, presented via SoundCloud. (You may also be interested in an animated map of the Mosul campaign and a larger multimedia exploration of the battle.)
It was the largest combat operation anywhere in nearly 15 years.
It’s the battle for the northern Iraqi city of Mosul—the largest offensive yet in the war against ISIS.
I'm Ben Watson from Defense One . And in the next ten or so minutes, we’ll speak to current and former U.S. military officials to better understand how the Islamic State’s nearly 3-year grip on the city was broken—and what that means for the future of the war against ISIS.
The sounds you’ll be hearing come from videos shared on social media by Iraqi security forces—there are even some from ISIS, and some from the U.S. military, returning to Mosul for the second large operation since 2004.
The battle began on October 17, 2016, when more than 100,000 ground troops collapsed on Mosul from five different directions.
With Syria to the North and West of Mosul, the coalition’s plan was to enter from the South with Iraq’s police and army, as well as some Shia militias; and from the East, where Kurdish troops had cleared a path to the city.
Iraq’s special forces advanced farthest, fastest—covering 15 miles from the east in just the first two weeks.
The obstacles in their way: “A lot of VBIEDs.” That's a suicide car bomber. And that's Brig. Gen. Rick Uribe, he’s the number two coalition commander speaking from Baghdad in mid-May. “Particularly in November and December, which is when we finally got into the urban side of the city.”
On top of an average of five car bombs per day, he said, “Then you had indirect fire that ISIS/Daesh was using against our iraqi security forces.”
And that’s stuff like mortars and rockets, some stolen from Iraqi army stocks, some manufactured from scratch in shops and warehouses all across the city.
“And it really was inaccurate. But they just were putting a bunch downrange.”
Beyond that, ISIS had plenty of sharpshooters and snipers popping out of buildings, or earth berms—and of course, dozens of miles of tunnels underneath and around the outskirts of the city.
Iraqi special forces broke through to East Mosul in early November. It was a big moment, and they seized the TV station and they began churning through new intelligence on car bomb factories, artillery caches—and weaponized off-the-shelf drones, like what you’re hearing now from the Iraqi federal police.
Armed drones were a harassing—and occasionally deadly—addition to the 21st century battlefield, and Mosul was its proving ground.
It was also an easy tactic to copy. Within weeks, Iraqi federal police police had drones of their own, dropping 40mm grenades fixed to badminton-like birdies for more controlled targeting. The same tactic ISIS used.
Also destroyed by this time: all five of Mosul’s bridges—including the one leading to the Old City, where the offensive’s toughest and final battle would take place.
Iraqi troops advanced quickly in the new year, battling through Mosul University close to the Tigris River, and declared a formal end to the battle for East Mosul on January 24th.
ISIS car bombs became increasingly frequent, and so did coalition air strikes on buildings suspected of harboring car-bomb factories.
By March, the battle had officially moved north from the airport and to the edges of Mosul’s Old City, which contained the 12-century mosque where ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the caliphate back in June 2014.
It’s a dense and difficult area to assault—much different from the neighborhoods around it, built up decades and centuries after the Old City. And General Uribe said this was well understood by Iraqi and coalition planners going in.
“This would be a challenging fight for any force… We knew that that was gonna be the case. Old Mosul, it’s just a different landscape. It’s very tight. Vehicles can’t fit in there. It’s a dismounted fight.”
And coupled with ISIS use of human shields, it bogged down the latter weeks of the war in an increasingly bloody draw.
The coalition's deadliest strike of the ISIS war to date happened on March 17 in al-Jadida district.
The bombing, by the coalition's own account, killed more than 100 of the nearly 300 initially reported dead in the explosion.
A brief lull in the offensive followed as the coalition investigated what happened. What they discovered: a coalition aircraft was at least partially responsible when it dropped a GPS-guided bomb on two ISIS snipers harassing Iraqi troops from atop a building. Unbeknownst to the Iraqi special forces who called in the strike: ISIS had allegedly packed the building’s lower floor with explosives. Investigating officer Brig. Gen. Matthew Isler explained the situation to reporters in May.
“The GBU-38 detonated a large amount of explosives in place by ISIS...which resulted in the collapse of the structure, the death of 101 civilians within the structure and the death of four civilians in the neighboring structure to the west.”
“Our very best effort is what we seek to achieve,” said coalition spokesman, Col. John Dorrian. “And whenever there's an unfortunate incident in this nature, it's heart breaking.”
“CTS could see the rear of the house where the snipers and the defensive fighting position were, but they could not see parts of the north-facing front of the house. So there were blind zones. And that's the nature of the urban environment.”
Despite the casualties, coalition officials stand by the overall air war in the Mosul offensive.
"I don't think you've seen another campaign in a long time with the level of precision that we've been able to accomplish here in striking the right target with the right weapon at the right time."
But the bulk of the fighting has taken place on the ground, and with an intensity unmatched for decades—even taking into consideration the brutal battles to retake Fallujah and Mosul during the U.S. invasion of Iraq more than 10 years ago.
“When is the last time that any major army has fought in an environment like this?” asked Uribe. “I would offer it’s probably been in World War II.”
Some have suggested the Russian battles for Grozny, Chechnya, in the '90s. Others suggest Germany’s battle for Stalingrad in mid-to-late 1942 as a possible parallel.
One of those people “David Woody and I'm a retired U.S. Army Special Forces colonel.” Witty retired in 2014 and now works as an adjunct professor at Norwich University.
“I closely follow the battle of Mosul and Iraq in general just because I served a couple tours there as an advisor with the Iraqi counter-terrorism service so I'm just generally interested in on what's happening what's taking place in Iraq.”
Now, about those World War II comparisons?
“The thing that really makes this different is that the Iraqis are really taking a lot of care to try to protect as many civilians as they can and as much infrastructure as they can. And, of course, those those weren’t concerns to the Germans and Russians in the battles that they fought. So that's what kind of makes this unique and I think that was really kind of a hallmark in the battle of the east Mosul.”
But perhaps most importantly: the Iraqis learned how truly difficult but necessary maneuver warfare is in a vast, urban environment.
“When they attack ISIS on multiple axes and have multiple advance routes, they’re successful. But when they only have one, it turns into a meat grinder...It usually doesn’t work out, because ISIS is able to concentrate their best fighters and all their combat power on just that one axis. And that's a mistake that was made during the first half of the battle.”
Equally worrisome: an over-reliance on Iraq’s special forces of the Counter Terrorism Service.
“The counterterrorism service like the name implies was an elite counterterrorism unit which is going to conduct you know precision range hostage rescues ambushes. It was never designed to be used the way it's been used now… You know you don't tell a Ranger battalion or a U.S. Ranger What kind of U.S. special forces can go on in and clear a city. That's why you have a regular army for… But you know, everything that happened in the fall of Mosul in 2014 you know the fall of Fallujah of them in the fall of Ramadi. The Iraqis really had no choice...but just because of their adaptability they turned out to be very successful in that role although it's been very costly.”
After more than 200 days, Iraqi special forces and some Western advisers at last converged around the group’s stronghold in the Old City. They responded by detonating the 12-century al-Nouri mosque.
The damage to Mosul was substantial even a month before the offensive ended. An analysis from the United Nations showed the bulk of the destruction concentrated in West Mosul, and approaches leading to the Old City, much more so than the east.
Eight months of intense, unending combat. That’s enough time to teach each side a thing or two about how the other fights—and draw up some lessons learned.
Some of the notable adaptations, for both the coalition and ISIS, include:
—How to better fight a suicide car bomb: Iraqi officials said ISIS dispatched nearly 1,000 car bombs during the Mosul offensive. That’s enough to try out more than a few countermeasures, like: anti-tank guided missiles, heavy machine guns, and even something as simple as digging a few trenches a good distance away from fortifications in an effort to shake up and trigger the car bomb before it hits its intended target.
—How to fight many armed drones and quadcopters: Some of the equipment, like the Taiwan-made Ray Sun, was apparently rushed to the front lines; others, like the Blighter jamming system appeared pretty early in the offensive.
And another adaption: —How an enemy like ISIS can complicate an air war: There are a handful of tricks ISIS tossed at the coalition, including putting up white sheets to thwart aerial surveillance over key parts of West Mosul. Wooden tanks and decoy humvees to draw airstrikes. And the group’s growing use of civilians as human shields in the waning days of their grip on Mosul.
What comes next? In the near-term, almost half a million displaced Moslawis are still returning to their homes—or what’s left of them—to rebuild.
Meanwhile, ISIS is still holding onto territory south and west of Mosul.
“Other pockets of ISIS exist elsewhere in Ninawa, Hawija, and the western Euphrates River Valley of Anbar Province,” U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said to reporters during his first ISIS war briefing on May 19. “We will continue to fully support the Iraqi Security Forces and Prime Minister Abadi's government in isolating and destroying ISIS throughout Iraq.”
And the future of Iran-Iraq relations? “That's really the million dollar question,” said former special forces colonel David Witty. “The Popular Mobilization Forces—the Shi’a militias—they’ve become so important in this. some of the popular mobilization forces are really independent, and work directly for Baghdad; others have Iranian advisors…”
It’s a big worry for Washington, as it’s been for years. But the Mosul offensive has done little to diminish those concerns. Some of those Iranian-aligned troops have swept into the Iraq-Syria border in recent weeks to cut off ISIS lines of travel into the largely lawless eastern Syrian desert.
After the fighting, the politics inside Iraq we be almost as difficult, Witty said.
“I think this is the beginning of a long difficult process. Iraqi politicians have all been saying that the the phase that comes after Mosul is going to be harder than the actual Mosul because there's going to be a lot of hard decisions that have to be made.”
Decisions that hang on the status of the Kurdish people, who have been called the world’s largest stateless nation. The Kurds hold much of the territory east of Mosul clear to the border with Iran. Their central city, Erbil, lies between the two.
And Witty says this all means attention will soon be turning on “What plays out with the Kurdish regional government. All indications are that they're going to seek independence… And then, so when that happens, where does that leave Iraq? Does Anbar Province want to break off, and set up its own its own country, since its majority Sunni? And does the rest of Iraq—Baghdad just become an Iranian rump state heavily influenced Iranian politicians and leaders?”
The west is banking on Iraq sticking together. The whole point of the U.S. choosing to fight ISIS “by, with, and through” Iraqi Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish forces was so that after they fight together those groups can govern all of Iraq together—so that Americans don’t have to do this all over again, a third time.
North of Iraq, ISIS persists in Syria—where the U.S. has directed an entirely separate and increasingly large-scale military operation for months. The target: ISIS’s de-facto headquarters in Raqqa. South of Raqqa, is ISIS stronghold in Deir Ez-Zour along the Euphrates River. Some 200 kms west is ISIS presence around the ancient city of Palmyra.
Which is all to say the battle for Mosul soon may be over; but beyond Iraq the war against ISIS—it’s far from finished.