Mosul: A Bridge Too Far?


As the Iraqi government’s campaign to liberate Tikrit wraps up, there will undoubtedly be questions about the next target of the campaign to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Prior to the surprise battle for Tikrit, many observers focused on Mosul until a disastrous CENTCOM press conference sparked a backlash against the idea. Straddling the famous Tigris River, Mosul is Iraq’s second largest city and has, for millennia, linked the Levant and Persia. Its importance has not diminished over time – making its seizure by ISIL last summer especially painful. Already the economic engine of ISIL’s return from the almost dead, the city became its psychological capital when Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed the establishment of the caliphate from its most famous mosque. Correctly assessing this importance, and fed by its doctrinal attraction to the concept of a center of gravity, the American military has been drawn to the idea of a decisive battle for Mosul. The recapture of Mosul would be devastating to ISIL and its recruitment of foreign fighters. But identifying Mosul as the natural Schwerpunkt of a combined attack is one thing – taking and holding Mosul for the long-term is a much more difficult proposition. ISIL’s political and economic entrenchment in Ninewa province, the lack of motivated allies in the area, and a long logistical line of communication from Baghdad could make Mosul a bridge too far.

Mosul – an Islamic State stronghold since 2004

The narrative that Mosul was invaded from Syria by a small number of militants last summer who managed to drive out a corrupt security force supports the idea the ISIL has shallow roots in the area and can be pushed out with moderate effort. As I argued here at War on the Rocks last December, that narrative only tells half of a story. Mosul’s fall last year was less telling as an indicator of the collapse of an occupational army than a measure of ISIL’s true and longstanding strength in the area. It was a tipping point and a shift that better explains why thousands fled from mere hundreds of insurgents. ISIL has had a strong presence in Ninewa (Mosul’s province) ever since Fallujah’s clearance in late 2004 left Mosul as the unofficial capital of ISIL. Hassan Hassan and Michael Weiss, in their new book on ISIL, emphasize the continuity of the ISIL movement as opposed to viewing it as a series of different organizations. I find this perspective persuasive. Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the founder of Al Qaeda in Iraq, chose Mosul during the battle of Fallujah as his fallback location in order to sustain his attempt to establish the foundation for a future Islamic State. From 2004 to 2008 the ISIL movement actively challenged the Coalition and Iraqi government for domination of the city. Even after the military and political activity of the Awakening/Surge period in 2007, which upended ISIL in Babil, Anbar, and Diyala, ISIL was able to maintain its position in Mosul with slight adjustments. By 2008, Mosul was considered the last urban holdout of the ISIL and the last place the U.S. wanted to remove combat troops from active combat.

More than just a military presence, the ISIL movement in Ninewa ran extensive extortion networks since 2005, taxing large segments of normal economic activity and, according to RAND researcher Patrick Johnston, earning enough to achieve self-sufficiency for the group by 2006. This increase in revenue helped compensate for the ISIL loss of Anbar province in 2006-07, which had been another high revenue generator for the movement. To demonstrate the importance of extortion operations to ISIL, Coalition operations in early to mid-2010 killed or captured the economic security emir, three major “extortion personalities,” an oil minister and his deputy, and an oil extortion leader – all in or around Mosul. Mosul’s worth to ISIL cannot be underestimated as its excess revenue supported all other provinces financially. This is less an indicator of how hard ISIL will fight for Mosul as it is a measure of how deeply rooted this organization is in the very fabric of Ninewa province.

Extortion happens at a personal level, with criminals/insurgents securing intimate knowledge of business activities and exploiting the failure of the government to establish the rule of law. Bernard Fall long ago wrote that if you are losing an insurgency you are being out-governed, not outfought, and the ability of ISIL to tax the businesses of Mosul as the shadow government played a large role in their resurgence from 2008 to 2014. They simply out-governed Baghdad by being less corrupt and more brutal – a significant advantage of an ideological group that claims to value purity and morality. ISIL instead funneled its profits into the recruitment of fighters, funding military operations, and wooing Sunni tribes back to the movement. Aymenn al Tamimi argues that ISIL’s deep roots in Mosul was the reason that ISIL was able to dominate its Sunni rivals in the city in a mere 1-2 months, not the 5-6 months it took in other areas. He also provides an enlightening archive of detailed ISIL governing documents in Mosul as an indication of the sophistication and integration of the group into all aspects of Moslawi life.

Most analysis of the loyalty of Sunni tribes to the Iraqi government versus ISIL indicates great variation by province and even within the tribe. Sunni tribes in mixed Sunni-Shia areas were fervent supporters of the early insurgency, in part due to the proximity of Shia militias like Badr or Jaysh al Mahdi in nearby populations. According to Fanar Haddad, these types of sectarian dynamics rose out of the 2003 invasion as Sunni and Shia identities became more salient and their respective relationships to the state flip-flopped. Diyala and north Babil are mixed sect areas and remained hotspots of resistance to the Iraqi government until mid-2007 when the Awakening movement – a loose coalition of Anbari Sunni tribes that withdrew their support for Zarqawi’s group and began to work with the Iraqi government – gained traction among Sunni tribes outside of Anbar. Anbar, ironically, because it is safely Sunni and unthreatened by Shia militants, was the first to bristle under the ISIL movement’s attempts to govern the tribes as part of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq in 2006. Uprisings were seen in far western Al Qaim as early as 2005 and again in Ramadi in 2006 – before the Awakening swept Anbar and reduced violence dramatically in 2007. In the current fight, Sunni tribes have even invited Shia militias to fight alongside them in Anbar.

Mosul, on the other hand, is different. ISIL has long positioned itself as the champion of the Sunni tribes of Ninewa – who have been in conflict with local Kurds since at least the Saddam era, if not long before. A strong indicator of this acceptance is the fact that no coherent Awakening movement was ever sustained in Ninewa, unlike the other troubled provinces discussed above. My research of ISIL targeting patterns from 2006-2013 found that, while ISIL attacked Awakening forces almost as often as Shia militias, Iraqi Security Forces, and Iraqi civilians – especially in 2008 as they struggled to maintain their core areas in the Sunni rural heartland – there was a minuscule number of attacks against Awakening in Ninewa compared to other provinces. Despite the momentum against ISIL all over the country and the financial incentives involved with joining the government and the Americans, a Ninewa Awakening never materialized in a substantial way. Is it a surprise that in 2014 a large number of Ninewa tribes tacitly or outwardly supported ISIL in its consolidation of northern and central Iraq? Contrast this behavior with tribes like the Albu Mahal and the Albu Nimr tribes of Anbar that have resisted ISIL since 2005 and 2006 and continue to do so to this day. If the Iraqi government cannot rely on sympathetic tribes to retake Mosul, it needs to find other allies that can contribute.

The under-defined alliance against ISIL… might have better things to do than go to Mosul

When the idea of liberating Mosul is discussed – an important goal of the Iraqi government to be sure –the easy solution points to the nearby Kurds. This group, however, is stretched maintaining newly won gains in northern Iraq and hesitant to commit to such a large operation that the Kurds feel should be the Iraqi government’s responsibility. Furthermore, the Kurdish leadership refuses to go without Sunni support, to avoid the operation being seen as a grab for even more land – a real concern for Iraqi Arabs on both sides of the sectarian divide. As with many things concerning Iraq, Kurdish participation is a complex issue and difficult to predict with any measure of confidence. At best, Kurdish involvement will be contingent on Sunni participation and play only a supporting role.

With the Kurds on the fence, Sunni tribes thinly stretched, and the recovering Iraqi Army limited in capability, the Iraqi government will have to rely on other forces. The Abadi administration is doubling down on the use of volunteers inspired by Imam Sistani’s fatwa to defend Iraq – called the Hashd Shaabi, or popular mobilization forces – to carry the fight to ISIL. The Hashd is overwhelmingly populated by existing Shia militias according to Michael Knights, but it also importantly includes unaffiliated Sistani followers, Christian groups, and Sunni tribesmen as well. The Hashd option is the most likely one Iraq will rely on for an operation in Mosul, as they are well supported by Iranian advisors and equipment and highly motivated to defeat an existential enemy. Having said this, it is possible that there is a negative correlation between motivation to fight and the distance the Hashd moves from the Shia homeland. The Hashd led fight for Tikrit was an emotional one as it took place in the environs of the Speicher massacre where an estimated 700 young Shia cadets were brutally murdered in yet another example of ISIL’s genocidal campaign against religious rivals. The Hashd Shaabi was motivated to clear the Baathist hometown of Saddam Hussein, with a small minority primed to visit revenge for the Speicher massacre on certain Tikriti tribes that allegedly were implicated in the ISIL ordered massacre. It is a bit early to see if this desire was fulfilled in Tikrit, but it will be a key issue to watch for the future. Once Tikrit is secured, occupation forces will be needed for newly cleared areas of Diyala and Salahuddin, in addition to the previously cleared hotspots in north Babil’s triangle of death. These key areas to Iraqi Shias could soak up larger segments of the volunteers who cannot leave behind their population to the predation of ISIL sleeper cells that have already restarted the cycle of assassinations and bombings.

That bridge too far

In Operation Market Garden in September of 1944, Allied airborne forces jumped behind German lines to secure key bridges on the road to Arnhem, an objective that would help seize a foothold for a decisive advance into Germany. German forces were supposedly reeling from the Normandy campaign and in rough order, harried by Allied airpower. Unfortunately, the lightly equipped airborne forces could not open the road to Arnhem long enough for a link up to occur with the British and Polish paras in Arnhem and the operation failed. Market Garden was simply too ambitious a plan against too tough an enemy that had plenty of fight left in them.

Taking Mosul will be much easier than the battle for Arnhem, with the Islamic State able to muster a much less capable force than the German panzers the Allies encountered during Market Garden. Coalition air power, not much of a factor in the battle for Tikrit to date, has been focused on Mosul as part of the deep battle all along and will make defensive maneuvering around Mosul difficult. Kurdish forces have cut the ISIL main supply lines from Syria, and their revenue from the northern oil fields has dropped due to kinetic strikes and low oil prices. If sufficient forces can be found to liberate Mosul, there is the question of who will garrison such a hostile location to non-Sunni forces. This force will most likely be resupplied through the Tigris River Valley, an area that has strongly supported ISIL in the past, and this line of communication will be more than 250 miles long. Insurgent use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) has not been effective against fast moving and fluid offensive forces in Tikrit and other areas, but IEDs are excellent for use in targeting logistics convoys and routine patrols belonging to a stabilization force. This dynamic can be seen in the contrast between the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and then the subsequent occupation.

The beginning of the end

As Douglas Ollivant recently argued here at War On the Rocks, ISIL will eventually be defeated. Their belief in the inevitability of their success and the supposed weakness of their enemies has caused ISIL to overreach and overcommit their forces. It is not always your enemies that defeat you; combatants are more than capable of defeating themselves, as Sun Tzu would say. The limited means of the Iraqi government, without U.S. or other ground forces at hand, dictates a limited and incremental strategy that must be balanced with the need to liberate Iraqis from the dystopian nightmare they are living. Cleared areas need to be scoured for caches and locals screened for ISIL sympathizers and stay behind forces. Lines of communications need to be secured. All of these mandates dictate a measured approach – and serious consideration about whether taking Mosul in the next few months may be a bridge too far.


Craig Whiteside is a professor at the Naval War College, Monterey. A former Army officer, he served in two units that flew the battle streamer from Market Garden on their regimental colors. These comments are his own and do not reflect the views of the U.S. Navy or the War College. Contact him at


Photo credit: Adam Jones