The Army general who oversaw training of Iraqi troops says the rushed mission to retake Mosul from the Islamic State this spring is doomed.
Retired Lt. Gen. Michael Barbero said Mosul is booby-trapped with explosives and controlled by thousands of suicidal fighters. Evicting them will take a coordinated ground and air campaign with precise intelligence on enemy locations. It is a combat mix that Iraqis simply lack the ability to execute in accordance with an announced U.S. Central Command timeline to attack Mosul in April or May.
“They could be ready to attack. I doubt they’d be successful,” Mr. Barbero told The Washington Times. “Two months is clearly inadequate to think that they could start offensive operations of any effect in Mosul.”
A U.S. Central Command briefer last week laid out an exact schedule for invading Iraq’s second-largest city. The plan is so ambitious and so out in the open that observers are scratching their heads.
The Islamic State has had eight months to hunker down in Mosul, which was hostile to the Shiite-run government in Baghdad even before the takeover by the extremist group, also known by the acronyms ISIS and ISIL.
“Urban fighting is the most sophisticated, complex fight there is,” Mr. Barbero said. “Multidimensional. It’s direct fire. Indirect fire. Precision fires. If you want to gain support from the occupants, the Sunnis, you can’t go in there and just run with it. So it has to be a very, very precise application of firepower against an enemy that has no regard for the population and will indiscriminately use violence to hold on. There’s no way the Iraqi Security Forces will be ready for this kind of fighting.”
Meanwhile, President Obama’s top adviser overseeing the coalition fighting the Islamic State sought to cast a positive light Wednesday over “significant gains” against the terrorist group.
Retired Marine Gen. John Allen did not specifically address the question of whether Iraqi troops will be prepared for the Mosul offensive, but he asserted during testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the Islamic State is “defeatable and is being defeated by Iraqi forces, defending and taking back their towns, villages and cities.”
Gen. Allen told lawmakers that the “aura of invincibility” that surrounded the Islamic State after its fighters swiftly seized Mosul and declared an Islamic caliphate in June has been “shattered” by Iraqi troops’ increasing ground gains.
Such claims run counter to skepticism in Washington, where a growing number of lawmakers and analysts say the impending Mosul offensive likely will be decisive test of the Obama administration’s commitment to crush the extremist movement.
The plan: Finish training 3,200 Iraqi soldiers, then send them into the field to replace five Iraqi brigades. Those five units then will be trained by U.S. troops to form the core of an invasion force of 25,000 that will include police, special operations and logisticians — all Iraqis.
The U.S. military will be restricted to its current roles: airstrikes, aerial surveillance and intelligence-gathering. U.S. officers will be stationed at brigade headquarters or above and not take part in combat.
In essence, the U.S. will be supporting the same Iraqi army that retreated en masse when Islamic State fighters invaded from Syria last summer. Fighters gobbled up ground in western and northern Iraq including its crown jewel, the sprawling city of Mosul.
With no U.S. troops in the field, precise intelligence on terrorists’ actions and locations in Mosul is missing.
“I don’t think we have the means on the ground to generate adequate intelligence on where to go in Mosul, what to hit, where not to go,” said the retired three-star general. “I would think the first thing is you’ve got to develop a network of intelligence to be able to hit the right targets to set the conditions.”
Mr. Barbero said the large majority of allied airstrikes have been against tactical targets: the Islamic State’s vehicles, boats and fighter emplacements. To take down the group, the U.S. must go after its leadership, for which intelligence is spotty.
“Mosul is 1.4 to 1.8 million people,” he said. “It’s always been a hostile place. ISIS has had nine months to control the situation and prepare for this,” he said.
The former general, who is now in the oil and gas business, knows the combat challenges in Iraq firsthand. He toured northern Iraq in December and talked with Kurdish peshmerga fighters.
He completed three combat tours in Iraq, the last from 2009 to 2011 as the American commander in charge of all training and equipping of Iraqi Security Forces before U.S. troops pulled out in December 2011.
His final military job was as director of the Pentagon organization that counters improvised explosive devices, the most deadly weapon in Afghanistan and one used by the Islamic State.
Invaders will find Mosul roads and buildings booby-trapped.
“The peshmerga tell me that most of their casualties are from IEDs,” Mr. Barbero said. “When they go into an area, they encounter ‘belts’ of IEDs. ISIS is very proficient in the use of IEDs.”
Of the planned invasion, he said: “Twenty-five thousand troops would be absorbed into that environment rapidly. I don’t think it’s enough. And I don’t think it’s enough time to get them ready from what I know about the status of Iraqi Security Forces.”
Gen. Allen sought to sound an optimistic tune Wednesday about the prospects of the Iraqi forces. Although he stuck mostly to broad-stroke assessments during his testimony on Capitol Hill, he noted that Kurdish peshmerga forces already have “taken control of Mosul Dam, the Rabiya border crossing, Sinjar Mountain, Zumar and the Kisik road junction, which eliminated a supply route for ISIL from Syria to Mosul.”
“Iraqi security forces with popular volunteers have secured the routes to Baghdad, and the capital is now seeing the lowest levels of violence it’s seen in years,” said the general, who also served in Iraq, heading multinational forces in the nation’s Anbar province from 2006 to 2008 before taking over as deputy commander of U.S. Central Command through mid-2011.
“ISIL’s advance has been largely blunted, and has been driven back away from the regional capitals of Baghdad and Irbil,” Gen. Allen said. “It has also lost half of its Iraq-based leadership and thousands of hardened fighters, and is no longer able to mass, maneuver and communicate as an effective force.”
• Guy Taylor contributed to this report.