The United States of America (U.S.) stepped up its involvement in Iraq and in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or the Group) back in 2014 as highlighted in our article “U.S. commences airstrikes against ISIL – too little too late?” from August, 2014.
The U.S. involvement announced by President Obama in August, 2014 has since transformed into the Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF–OIR). CJTF–OIR is the international coalition composed of U.S. military forces and personnel from over 30 countries that came together to support Kurdish and Iraq forces in the fight against ISIL.
Since the start of the Coalitions operations in October of 2014, the Coalition has trained more than 50,000 fighters and launched more than 17,000 strikes on ISIL targets. The Coalition has trained and equipped, both Kurdish and Iraqi forces and assisted them in liberating more than two million people and major population centers such as Ramadi, Fallujah, Tikrit, Kirkuk, Qayyarah, and Sharqat.
In our article from August, 2014 we came to the conclusion that:
“Prolonged airstrikes should help the Iraqi and Kurdish Forces to dismantle ISIL in Iraq, however largely because the U.S. support came so late, this will take a long time and should be thought of in years rather than months or weeks.”
More than two years after the creation of CJTF–OIR, our initial assessment from 2014 seems to be coming true, ISIL is on the retreat and Kurdish and Iraqi forces have made substantial gain, however as we predicted, despite the airstrikes, a significant involvement of embedded Western Special Forces and large quantities of equipment supplied, it took years to come to this point.
THE LIBERATION OF EASTERN MOSUL
The prolonged efforts of the Kurdish and Iraqi forces as well as the Coalition resulted in a major milestone earlier last week, the liberation of eastern Mosul, as announced by Haider Al-Abadi Prime Minister of Iraq:
It took over one hundred days of intense house to house combat to clear the portion of the city east of the Tigris River. The fight was especially tough since ISIL had two years to convert the city into a fortress with elaborate tunnel systems that made it especially hard to retake the city. While any military would have had a tough time to take the city, particularly in light of the many civilians held captive by ISIL as human shields, without Western support both in the form of airstrikes and embedded Special Forces, Iraqi forces would have had an even more difficult time to take the city and a liberation may have taken much longer.
Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, the commanding general of CJTF–OIR put it this way: “this would have been a difficult task for any army in the world. And to see how far the Iraqis have come since 2014, not only militarily, but in their ability to put their differences aside and focus on a common enemy, gives real hope to the people of Iraq that after years of fighting and instability, peace and security are attainable”.
In the fight for Mosul, since October, 2016, the Coalition has assisted the Iraqi forces with “558 airstrikes using 10,115 munitions against ISIL targets. These munitions have destroyed at least 151 VBIEDs (vehicle borne improvised explosive devices), 361 buildings/facilities, 140 tunnels, 408 vehicles, 392 bunkers, 24 AAA, and 315 artillery/mortar systems.”
We by no means want to downplay the success of liberating eastern Mosul and its importance in the overall campaign, we believe that while an important victory, it is just one of many that will be necessary to drive ISIL out of Iraq. It took one hundred days to liberate just the eastern portion of the city how many more months will it take to clear the remainder of Mosul and Iraq?
THE END OF ISIL?
With every day that passes ISIL suffers more losses and is more likely to break down, however the Group will also have more time to fortify the territory and the towns they have left under their control, consequently taking the last ISIL bastions will be a tough fight for the Coalition.
“There is still a long way to go before ISIL is completely eliminated from Iraq, and the fight for Western Mosul is likely to be even tougher than the Eastern side,” said Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, commanding general of CJTF–OIR.
We have no doubt just like we had no doubt in 2014 that militarily ISIL will be defeated if the Coalition sticks together, however the point of military defeat for ISIL is likely still many months away. Additionally, as we noted in 2014, defeating ISIL means to dismantle an ideology, which is a difficult task. All we have to do is look at Afghanistan, where more than a decade of ISAF did not manage to fully erode the Taliban. Much more than just defeating ISIL militarily will have to be done to truly defeat them and he idilogy that goes along with the Group.
IRAQ AFTER ISIL
ISIL will be driven into the underground eventually, the real questions is if Iraq will be able to find peace even after ISIL in its current form. As we said in 2014, the Kurds in the north are likely to demand independence from Iraq’s central government and other groups may want the same. Iraq is a patchwork of religious believes and ethnic groups, finding peace even without ISIL will continue to be a major challenge for the country and the region.