Mosul offensive, Day 3; US seeks support for drive on Raqqa; ‘Here I am,’ says Global Hawk over Ukraine; What if weapons were scriptable?; and just a bit more...

The Islamic State group has between 5,000 and 6,000 fighters in Mosul, Iraq's top special forces officer told Reuters this morning. That’s up slightly from the most recent U.S. estimate, pegging the group’s Mosul presence at between 3,000 and 4,500, according to the New York Times on Monday.

But it’s nothing close to the estimated 94,000 Iraq-and-allied troops said to be moving on Iraq’s second-largest city, according to CNN. Those troops are expecting to retake Mosul in two months’ time, Peshmerga officer Sirwan Barzani told CNN—with the first two weeks dedicated to clawing back turf on Mosul’s outskirts before allied troops even enter the city.

Reminder: We’re currently on Day 3 of an offensive that, at times, looks like an American Civil War re-enactment with updated arms.

But the offensive is still being sold as proceeding “faster than expected” and a “model operation,” according to Iraq’s top military official, Joint Force Commander and Counterterrorism Service Director, Gen. Talib Kenani, who spoke this morning while flanked by Maj. Gen. Fadil Barwari, brigade commander of the 1st Iraqi Special Operations Forces.

On a roll: Iraqi officials this morning say that a total of 352 square km has been “liberated” south of Mosul. Expect that to slow in the coming days as forces move closer to the city itself.

The chief obstacles so far: IEDs, car bombs, snipers and mortars.

After a first day which saw a dozen suicide bombers strike back at Baghdad’s forces, the Islamic State’s day two report added another five such attacks, raising their stated total to 17 so far, SITE Intelligence Group’s Rita Katz writes.

A bit more from the ISIS world of spin: “In the last couple of days, IS's Mosul offensive coverage has bounced between military, utopia and victimhood themes (in that order),” said terrorism scholar Charlie Winter, adding that ISIS conceded the loss of eight villages on Tuesday.

Iraq’s 9th Armored Division is advancing south of Mosul as well, claiming to have liberated 13 villages in two days.

This morning, ISIS has reportedly detonated at least three government buildings on the western side of Mosul.

So is there an available escape route for ISIS and/or civilians to flee into Syria? Yes, says the Telegraph’s Josie Ensor, reporting from Erbil. “They wait until night and leave by car. They are going to al-Ba’aj to the west of Mosul, then on to the Iraq-Syria border, where they continue to Syria and Turkey,” said one former resident.

Adds Ensor: “There are reports fighters are escaping Mosul itself in growing numbers. The US coalition yesterday targeted a number of Isil pick-up trucks seen heading out towards the Syrian border.”

And for a bit more on the Iraqi response to any supposed “escape route” to Syria, Shia militias announced this morning they’ll move on Tel Afar to sever a path to Syria. Reuters: “The Iranians and the (PMF) plan to take Tal Afar because of the Shi’ite significance and use that as a way to angle in to Mosul," said a senior Iraqi official who asked not to be named. "But they also want to use it as a way to angle into the Syria fight."

Dozens of oil wells have been reportedly recaptured by Iraqi Federal Police—though the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Unit’s claim of 50 could well be on the high side.

Peshmerga troops to the west resisted a large-scale attack in Sinjar, deflecting 250 fighters and multiple car bombs, Iraq’s al-Sumaria news reported this morning.  

And the UK military has airdropped some 730,000 ammo rounds to the Pesh, says the British consulate in Erbil.

In case you were curious, the Pentagon said Tuesday it has some 100 to 200 advisors embedded with Iraqi units around Mosul, with an unspecified number acting as forward air controllers. Stars and Stripes’ Tara Copp has more.

For what it’s worth: purported pictures of U.S. troops in Makhmour.

Want a photo-metaphor of U.S. government’s military partnering since 9/11? The New York Times’ former Marine officer C.J. Chivers says: look no further than the photo atop this story from Mosul.

And we have some new satellite imagery showing what airstrikes and artillery have done to the “extensive defenses” around Mosul, via the analysts at STRATFOR. See for yourself what burning car tires do and do not achieve, as well as what preparatory air and artillery strikes look like from the sky, here.  

Here is a window into life inside Mosul, as the offensive began: “Mosul is completely dark at night because IS forbids the use of any generators, fearing the lights could draw airstrikes,” AP reports. “‘Every minute passes like a year,’ said a father of three. Residents heard about the start of the offensive on the radio, he said, with the city rattled by airstrikes on its outskirts.” More here.

And the displaced continue to stream out of the surrounding regions, not yet “leading to immediate large scale displacements of affected people” expected when troops advance into the city proper, the UN said Tuesday. Details on how they’re preparing for the worst, here. More on the Syrian side of the war on ISIS below the fold.

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Welcome to Tuesday’s edition of The D Brief by Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. On this day in 1812, Napoleon began his retreat from Moscow, eventually returning to Paris with fewer than 100,000 of his half-million-man force. (Send your friends this link: And let us know your news:

Raqqa offensive in the works? The U.S. is quietly but urgently working with Turkish and Kurdish leaders “in Syria and the U.K., trying to hammer out an agreement to launch an offensive soon on the city of Raqqa,” The Wall Street Journal reports this morning, saying the U.S. believes it will need a force of 10,000 troops to do the job.

Reasons to hesitate: “The plan is complicated by the limited American military role on the ground in Syria, where a few dozen Special Operation Forces work with Turkey and its allies, supported by U.S. and coalition airstrikes. That leaves the U.S. to rely on a rancorous alliance that is challenged by distrust between Turkey and the Kurds and between Kurdish fighters and Arab Sunni forces.”

Ankara’s objections: “Complicating U.S. efforts to reach consensus on the Raqqa battle plan, Turkey opposes U.S. proposals to use a Kurdish-led force to take part in the Raqqa offensive, and wants Arab rebels to spearhead the operation. Some Western officials also say the Kurdish-led force could heighten ethnic conflict in the majority-Arab city, and that the prospect of a Kurdish-led assault is already driving Arab recruits there to Islamic State.”

Raqqa is not like Mosul, the Journal writes. For one thing, the estimated population there is roughly one-quarter of Mosul’s. And concerns over Kurdish presence in the area are higher than in the Mosul operation—and that’s also plaguing efforts to bolster U.S.-backed Arab fighters in the Syrian Democratic Forces. Read the rest, here.

The U.S. military has hardly taken its eye off of Syria; it conducted 18 airstrikes there on Tuesday, nearly half in the northeast around Shaddadi.  

Russia still dominates most questions about what’s next in Syria, the Washington Post reminded us Monday evening: “We’re not sure if any of our aircraft can defeat the S-300” surface-to-air defense system, a U.S. defense official said.

At least one scholar of the region is not so certain that’s the case, citing unspecified “stand-off and air systems to deal with” the S-300.

Meantime, Russia is expanding an airport in eastern Homs province, reportedly with an eye to fleeing ISIS fighters from Mosul. More on that, here.

Turkey’s President Erdogan continues to seek ways to avoid the appearance of irrelevance in the war on ISIS in Mosul, ratcheting up Ankara’s anti-Kurd rhetoric on Manbij.

And Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s says Erdogan should take comfort in the fact that his troops have not been invited to the Mosul offensive—saying he rejected offers from Jordan, the UAE, and Iran, too.

The U.S. wants Russia to know its Global Hawk drone was watching Crimea and the Donbass region of Ukraine, The Aviationist reported Tuesday: “Strategically based in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, U.S. RQ-4s are regularly tasked with surveillance missions over North Africa, East Europe and Middle East. However, they usually keep a low-profile avoiding to be detected at least by commercial ADS-B receivers like those feeding online flight tracking systems such as, or Global ADS Exchange. At least this is what has happened until Oct. 15 when a U.S. Air Force Global Hawk could be tracked online because of its Mode-S transponder while flying over southern Ukraine.”

How it unfolded: “The Global Hawk (04-2021) popped up on the radars at 50,000 feet, east of Odessa, flying towards Mariupol. Then, the remotely piloted aircraft turned northwest bound before heading towards Sigonella where it arrived after overflying Moldova and Bulgaria. At a certain point the UAS was cruising at 54,000 feet. The flight path the aircraft followed probably enabled its imagery intelligence (IMINT) sensors to take a look at Russian bases in Crimea as well as gather information about the pro-Russia forces on the ground in the Dombass region of Ukraine.”

The bottom line: “Even if RC-135s can be regularly tracked online, it’s at least weird that a strategic ISR platform that has remained “invisible” thus far, has operated with the transponder turned on over a highly sensitive region. We can’t completely rule out this happened by accident but considered that the risk of breaking OPSEC with an inaccurate use of ADS-B transponders is very well known it seems quite reasonable, in a period of raising tensions with Russia, to believe that the unmanned aircraft purposely broadcast its position for everyone to see, to let everyone know it was there.” Read the rest, complete with maps and tracking histories, here.

By the way: Russia’s state-run Sputnik News wants you to know Syria recognizes Crimea as Russian territory. That, here.

The UN is concerned about a rising number of civilian casualties in Afghanistan by government troops. Reuters: “At least 2,562 civilians died and another 5,835 were wounded in the conflict in Afghanistan in the first nine months of this year, U.N. officials said. A similar number of civilian casualties occurred in the same period in 2015, indicating rates may be leveling off at near-record levels after steadily increasing since the U.N. began monitoring them in 2009.”

More data: “Casualties caused by pro-government forces rose 42 percent compared to last year, with 623 deaths and 1,274 injured, U.N. investigators reported. That includes a spike of 72 percent in casualties from air strikes by the Afghan air force and its international allies. At least 133 people were killed and 159 were injured in air strikes, with two-thirds of those casualties attributed to the Afghan air force, the U.N. said. The Taliban and other militant groups still accounted for more than 60 percent of the overall casualties, with 1,569 civilian deaths and 3,574 injured, the report showed.”

For Afghans’ ears only: ISIS radio is reportedly back up in Afghanistan’s eastern Nangarhar province, Afghan journalist Bilal Sarwary wrote Tuesday, saying the broadcasts are beaming in Pashtu, Dari, Urdu and Arabic.

To vote or not: Some U.S. servicemembers tell The D Brief their previous vows to not vote in presidential elections is being tested this year more than any in years past. But still some are holding strong, as this op-ed piece in the NYTs tells us: “I am a major in the United States Army, and I believe it is my professional duty — and that of my fellow officers, in all branches — not to vote,” writes M. L. Cavanaugh. “Especially when our elected officials routinely make fateful decisions about where and how we are deployed, it is vital that we maintain the constitutional division between the civilians in charge and the men and women who execute their orders. Anything that erodes that division is a threat, however small, to our democracy.”

Reaching back to history for this decision: “By not voting, I am walking in the boot prints of our greatest officers: George C. Marshall, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Patton, to name a few who didn’t vote while in uniform, and those of the modern era that tread the same path — David H. Petraeus, Martin Dempsey and, by all appearances, Mark A. Milley, the current Army chief of staff. Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant is an especially instructive case, because he faced the grimmest temptation to tamper with the election of 1864 during the Civil War. And yet, crucially, Grant chose not to vote. These giants lived in different times, but they all agreed: Military officers shouldn’t vote in national elections. As a profession, we’d do well to follow their lead. I know I will.” Read his entire take, here.

Then consider this new poll from Military Times, showing GOP contender Donald Trump “appears to be the clear favorite among military voters now… the results of the military poll -- which surveyed nearly 2,500 active-duty troops between Oct. 12 and Oct. 14 -- show more than 40 percent of service members planning to vote for Trump as the next commander in chief. That’s up slightly from September, before his campaign was besieged by the allegations.”

Democratic contender Hillary Clinton “leads among female service members (36 percent support, to Trump’s 26 percent and Johnson’s 23 percent),” and—interestingly enough—she “is tied with [Libertarian Gary] Johnson among military officers (both around 31 percent, with Trump at 26 percent).” Read the rest of their poll breakdown, here.