A mix of conventional military and insurgent tactics is making the going tougher than anticipated. The Sunni / Shia split promises to bedevil the hard work that is still to come.
CounterJihad, November 17, 2016:
The Islamic State (ISIS) came out of a union of traditional Islamist radicals from al Qaeda in Iraq with members of Saddam’s military professionals. In its defense of the city of Mosul, ISIS is showing that its leaders have managed to bring a professional understanding of how to leverage both conventional and insurgent tactics to maximum advantage. The weight of numbers is against them, but they are fielding effective and vicious tactics to make their enemies pay dearly for their victories.
On the conventional side, CounterJihad has learned that ISIS successfully rendered the Mosul air field unusable for the forces pressing in on the city. Much of the strategy of the coalition of Iraqi, Iranian, and American forces has been built around capturing outlying areas that can then be used as effective staging grounds for the push into the city proper. ISIS anticipated this strategy. Having no use for an airfield itself, it suffers neither long- nor short-term costs for destroying the airport. We are also hearing that a second nearby airport near Tal Afar has been captured by Iranian-backed Shia militias, but has proven to be heavily mined with IEDs.
ISIS has also deployed snipers to slow the advance of their enemies into these neighborhoods. Traditionally, snipers can be contested with the use of air strikes or artillery. ISIS has been raising the cost of that by forcing Mosul civilians to remain in their homes. Snipers deployed on top of those homes are then protected, to some degree, by the human shields within. American air power is less likely to strike a house that is thought to be full of civilians, although doing so is justifiable under the Doctrine of Double Effect.* Iraqi and Iranian-led forces are less careful about such things, but the tactic does show some limited effectiveness given the reliance on American warplanes for much of the air strike capability.
Another tactic that shows a blend of insurgent and conventional military understanding has been the use of suicide vest attackers to slow military advances. The Long War Journal reports 79 such attacks in Mosul’s province. Our sources tell us that there have been such attacks in a “majority” of the sectors of the operation. The suicide vest is an insurgent tactic, but it is functionally very much like a Hellfire drone strike: it delivers a similar payload in a similarly accurate way, as if the human wearing the vest were a guided missile. It is unclear whether the suicide attackers are motivated by a desire for Paradise, or threats to their families. Either way, it is clear that ISIS has managed to develop a capacity to deliver these attacks on an industrial scale. It is a tactic that they are using in the place of an air force or similar surgical strike capability.
The campaign is thus proving costly. The hard part has not started yet, either. These are fights for staging grounds and outlying areas. The push into the heavily defended central city is yet to come.
There remains a serious concern with regard to the composition of the forces attacking Mosul, too. As mentioned, the Iranian-backed Shia militias have been tasked with taking Tal Afar. It is a city well-known to American veterans of the Iraq war, because it was one of the prototypical models for the new counterinsurgency campaign that would come to be known as the Surge, or the Awakening. Colonel H. R. McMaster led the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment to a stunning victory over al Qaeda in Iraq, one that proved lasting because of his commitment to treating the Sunni population with justice. The Mayor of Tal Afar visited Fort Carson, later, to personally thank American forces for freeing his city of Islamist terror.
”Are you truly my friends?” he asked through a translator. “Yes. I walk a happier man because you are my friends. You are the world to me. I smell the sweet perfume that emanates from your flower of your strength, honor and greatness in every corner of Tal Afar. The nightmares of terror fled when the lion of your bravery entered our city.”
Deploying these Shia militias to take Tal Afar instead suggests that no similar success will follow. The Institute for the Study of War reports that both the militias and the formal Iraqi Security Forceshave already been committing war crimes against the Sunni population. The Shia militias who were turned loose on Saddam’s home town of Tikrit disappeared hundreds while razing the homes of those they decided were personal enemies of Iran.
If this conduct continues, only chaos looms in the future of Ninevah province. Iran and Iraq will not create a peace in that desert unless they resist a temptation that they seem committed, instead, to sating in full.
* The Doctrine of Double Effect is an important element in Just War Theory, which is the traditional Western philosophical approach to war. The doctrine itself arose during the Middle Ages as Christian thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas applied Aristotelian reasoning to questions of war, but the roots of Just War Theory are older still. They lie in the efforts of the Church to try to stem the horrors of the constant warfare that came during the weakening of the Roman Empire, and the chaos that came after the fall of that empire. The Doctrine of Double Effect speaks to cases, like the bombing of a house hosting a sniper but also an innocent family, in which an act of war can cause significant harm as well as attaining some good. Thus, there is a double effect: a good effect, but also a bad effect.
The doctrine proposes a two part test for whether or not the action is justifiable. The first is that the good to be attained must be proportionate to the harm being done. While killing one sniper may not seem proportionate to killing a whole family of innocents, the killing of the sniper is part of a campaign to eliminate a regime that licenses Islamist sex-slavery and engages in terrible abuses of innocents. Thus, the good to be accomplished is arguably proportionate: indeed, eliminating ISIS is arguably a very great good indeed.
The second part is that the act must be discriminate, a technical term that means that the harm being done is neither your end, nor the means to your end. There is a thought experiment that helps clarify this question: If, by miracle, the harmful effect was avoided, would you be satisfied with the outcome? In the current case, assume that an American aircraft bombed the sniper’s location and — by miracle — none of the innocents inside were hurt. Would we be satisfied with the outcome? Obviously, we would be delighted if that happened.
Since the thought experiment is satisfied, the act is discriminate. If it is also proportionate, as it very arguably is, the bombing of the building is a justified act of war. The death of the family is a tragedy, but the moral fault for it lies on those who elected to use them as human shields, not on the pilot who bombs the building.
- Pentagon: More than 60 vehicle bombs destroyed during Mosul offensive (longwarjournal.org)
IRAQ’S COMING CATASTROPHIC SUCCESS (philosproject.org)