Ret. Gen. John Allen, President Obama’s special envoy for the global coalition to counter the Islamic State, or ISIS, gave a mixed assessment on Monday of the U.S. backed campaign against the terrorist group. On the one hand, Allen said, ISIS is losing territory in Syria and Iraq, proving to be a bad governor and facing problems in the ranks. On the other hand, the Iraqi government is not yet ready to hold ground in key areas like Mosul. The general did not address the fact that while the U.S. has been reluctant to commit troops to the fight, Iran has shown no similar reservations. On Sunday, Iranian officials joined with Iraqi forces in a major assault on the city of Tikrit.
There’s some evidence of a lack of coordination between the U.S. and the Iraqis, and the U.S. appears to have been caught off-guard by the Tikrit offensive — as Iraqi officials cast doubt on a recent Pentagon briefing on a spring offensive to retake Mosul . On Feb. 19, Pentagon officials announced that at some point in the spring, the United States would be supporting 20,000 to 25,000 specially trained Iraqi and Kurdish forces in an attempt to take back Mosul. But last Friday, Pentagon officials told the Daily Beast’s Nancy Youssef that the plan was on hold “indefinitely.”
Allen indicated, somewhat indirectly, that the problem was one of Iraqi readiness to consolidate gains within the acquired territory and also to meet humanitarian challenges within Mosul. The thing to keep in mind, taking a city like Mosul back from ISIS is “not just about the clearing force,” he said, “[it’s] more about the holding force.”
Any invading army would need to rebuild lost infrastructure and recreate mechanisms of civil government almost from scratch in Mosul, and do so rapidly. In other words, the liberation of the city of 1.5 million would expose a humanitarian crisis that the fragile Iraqi government may not yet be ready to manage.
“Prime Minister [Haider al-Abadi] ‘said we’ll do Mosul when we’re ready.’ Bottom line: we’ll do Mosul when we’re ready,” said Allen.
How bad has life become in ISIS-controlled territories? “The reporting is mixed from the populations under ISIL occupation,” said Allen, who went on to characterize the reports as “uniformly trending from negative to horrendous.” There’s some good news in that for the Iraqi government and the anti-ISIS coalition. Allen reported “a growing dissent in ISIL’s command structure,” marked by an increase in desertion and more frequent executions of foreign fighters by ISIS commanders to keep order in the ranks.
He added that the people he had encountered who had been liberated from ISIS control in places like Kobani had “endured enormous abuse and deprivation.”
As for the real marks of progress, essential to any lasting return to stability, “moving Daesh out of the population is part of it — moving that population back into the mainstream of Iraq, caring for it,” Allen said.
He did not touch on the developments in Tikrit, where Iraqi armed forces, backed by Shia and Sunni militiamen and Iranian officers, launched an attack to take back the city from ISIS forces. Iranian news outlets reported on Monday that Qassem Suleimani, the commander of Iran’s Quds force, part of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, was in Tikrit to supervise the attack, an operation that caught many U.S. officials “by surprise.”