Daniel L. Davis
Security, Middle East
Last Thursday, Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi shared the good news about Mosul. “The fighting forces are currently pushing forward toward the town more quickly than we thought,” he began, “and more quickly than we had established in our plan for this campaign.” Such statements, while encouraging to his nation, are deceptive. The real fighting has yet to start. It is also vitally important to realize that if ISIS chooses to fight to the death in Mosul—like the Texans’ historic Alamo fight—it is not inconceivable that ISIS could achieve strategic victory even if it is eventually defeated in Mosul.
It is important to understand that Islamic State fighters, while frequently derided as mindless thugs, heartless terrorists and common criminals, pose a formidable tactical threat. They benefit from fifteen years of lessons learned during insurgent operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. Many of their leaders have significant experience battling against traditional military forces and are experts in the conduct of guerrilla operations and city fighting.
ISIS has experience of fighting in Kobani, Raqqa and now years in Aleppo. Its forces are the most experienced and expert urban fighters in the world right now. ISIS’s members have become masters of crafting elaborate defenses, digging interlocking tunnels, and sowing complex and multilayered minefields. The attacking Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) also have experience in city fighting, as they’ve ejected ISIS from Fallujah, Tikrit and Ramadi. But in each of those battles, ISIS has fought what is essentially a fighting withdrawal.