The tide has begun to recede. Painfully, Iraqi special forces in conjunction with American Special Forces and Iraqi militias have begun moving north from Baghdad in a vice around the city of Mosul on the banks of the Northern Tigris. From the north sweeping down from the mountains are Kurdish and Yazidi armies, pouncing from town to town and working their way slowly to Mosul fielding hundreds of defended and booby trapped villages. Between these two fighting groups is a flat floodplain valley that once was the center of the earth. Mosul was built upon the ruins of Nineveh, the first capitol of the Akkadian empire. Since man first forged bronze into spears, they spilled blood in the Tigris, and now the grim repetition resumes.
But why is Mosul so important? What brings people there to die so routinely? Is Mesopotamia really that nice this time of year?
It breaks down to the tactics of the Islamic State. Since they erupted in control across Iraq in 2012 and 2013 they have become increasingly interested in taking and holding territory. In the past, conventional militaries have had trouble uprooting fanatical groups like the Islamic state, a result of American dependence on air power. In the final months of 2001 the Taliban was evicted from all but a few major metropolitan areas in Afghanistan with tremendous effect by Coalition forces. Use of drone, A-10 Warthog, and MOAB strikes with precision guided targeting enabled us to annihilate any and all static positions used by enemy combatants. Once they were no longer defending territory, and became insurgents intent solely on harassing Coalition units in the field, air power faded away as a useful tool. Bombs target buildings and troop concentrations, visible targets for spotters or pilots. A single insurgent in a mountain pass holding up a US Company with small arms fire takes more time to deal with than any fortified, identified bunker that can be designated as a target for ordinance.
Yet as the Islamic state crystallized its hold over Iraq, its leaders insisted on the notion of a territorially lodged and administrated caliph. As such, ISIS dug in on its borders and in villages, creating heavy obstacles for forces without official military support. Groups like Kurdish militias in the north have faced stiff resistance in the towns around Mosul. In many cases insurgents leave bombs and mines in every building for blocks on end. The flat topography of the plains around Mosul make cover from machine gun positions entirely contingent on the presence of armoured vehicles, of which the Kurds have few, and buildings, of which US airstrikes have made few and far between.
In the south however, a newer and leaner Iraqi military has surfaced. Working in conjunction with US airpower, they have reclaimed all of the area surrounding Baghdad and are currently closing in on ISIS held Mosul. They face an entirely different set of issues from the Kurds: the geography in the south is almost entirely flat, but is dotted with industrial compounds and ruined urban development projects. These serve as useful vantages for insurgent fighters, and even more useful targets for American gunship spotters. With the Islamic State playing into the strengths of American air support, Iraqi forces have begun making heavy inroads into the city’s outskirts. Here they have begun organizing militias based on their knowledge of specific areas of the city, and as of October 22nd these militias have been employed in the fighting.
What problems do the Kurdish, Iraqi, and American elements in Mosul face after the siege is completed?
As has been the case before, ISIS going underground poses an ever present danger. The doctrine that ensured victory over them may disappear with their caliphate, but their ideology remains, and so will their fighters. After Mosul is taken a few more strategic cities will remain under the territorial domain of ISIS. Optimally, the group will remain set on the idea of a solid state and will concentrate in these remaining cities to be eliminated cohesively. The likelihood of this occurring is slim, but possible. The very nature of the untenable doctrine embraced by the insurgents is evidence that they do not really expect the survival of their empire. However,, the consolidation of land grasps at the idea of an Arab state, which despite its differences from a caliphate, can still appeal to the minds of the generation of Iraqis who have known nothing but war.
Beyond this is the issue of reprisal. In many cases, citizens of Mosul trying to flee into government held lands are subject to public beheading or torture. The message sent by the Islamic State is simple: if you aren’t fighting for the caliphate, you will be a martyr for it. In these circumstances, speed is key. The closer the forces near Mosul, the greater the brutality displayed by the city’s captors. Realizing this, the Islamic State has begun a campaign of attrition. Some convoys of the Iraqi and Kurdish forces advance less than a mile a day under constant harrasment fire from hidden positions unknown to US airmen. A chief weapon of ISIS is the suicide truck bomb, in which hidden trucks will speed towards convoys from flanking directions in a near impossible bid to come within blast radius of the convoy. Often they are cut down kilometers away, but time is still wasted.
Furthering the issue of civilian support is the blatant attempts by insurgents to put civilians in harm's way. Fighters in Mosul have been reported using human shields out of captured refugees and political prisoners. In the south many families are forced to remain in their homes by curfew laws, even as a battle progresses around them block by block. ISIS militants sometimes stay in the civilians homes for fighting cover from enemy fire, increasing the amount of civilian casualties from airstrikes. The Islamic State seems incredibly keen to make gathering civilian support incredibly difficult.
Mosul stands at a pivotal juncture between Kurdish and Iraqi forces. Once arrived, they can begin the arduous process of brokering peace with one another and coordinating the final attack on the Islamic State. The caliphate is dying, but its scars will remain deep in not only Mosul but across Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan. Until then, heavy fighting will continue and more lives will be lost for a war with an increasingly tenuous background. A parable of this war’s effect comes from the fact that many fighters were only children during the 2003 invasion. War is all they know. It is possible that it is all they will ever know. One thing is certain: war will be ever present in the coming months, and as the noose tightens around Mosul, both the Islamic State and ordinary citizens will feel the squeeze.