Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Is the President's Request for Authorization of Force the Right Package? Is the Mosul Announcement Crazy?

(Total reading time: about 10 minutes)

Reader Andrew asked me for my opinion on the efficacy of the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) that President Obama requested from Congress earlier in the month.

Part of what prompted the question was an email from Andrew's representative Michael Capuano (D-MA) stating why he was against the authorization as-written. In short, his objections:

  • "Half measures are a recipe for failure and this resolution is a half measure." It doesn't allow US forces to take part in military operations necessary to win
  • The US' record in the Middle East usually includes success on the ground followed by disaster--either quagmire (Afghanistan and Iraq) or post-war collapse without us there (Libya and post-2013 Iraq); there's currently no plan on how to make this work
  • The US is not directly threatened by ISIS; we could play a support role for more directly threatened nations (Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia) that lead the assault, but leading it does not make sense from a national security perspective
Presumably if Jordan/Egypt/Turkey/Saudi Arabia (along probably with the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar for good measure) led a ground force, they'd be stuck with managing the aftermath--good both because the US doesn't have to get stuck in another quagmire and also because these countries will have a better chance of managing the peace (more cultural affinity and "pulse" of the situation). Spoiler alert: they probably won't.

Before I add my two cents, let's review a very brief summary of the draft sent to Congress.

Key Points of the AUMF

  • The AUMF is for 3 years (a year beyond the remainder of the President's term) and has no geographical restrictions
  • It's clear enough that it's specifically ISIS-related that it probably can't be used to go after every terrorist organization out there (I'll leave out commentary on the 2001 "Global War on Terror" AUMF and the question of constitutionality of recent operations)
  • Ground forces can advise local troops, conduct search-and-rescue operations for coalition members captured by ISIS, coordination for airstrikes and allied ground movements (think: helping coordinate airstrikes to soften targets for Kurdish advances), and "special operations" (SEALs and whatnot) to take out ISIS leaders
  • Ground forces cannot participate in "enduring" (this is probably intentionally vague) offensive ground operations...
  • The 3,000 troops in Iraq are exempt from this restriction, meaning they'll probably be participating in the Iraqi spring offensive

It's Actually Pretty Good

After reading Rep. Capuano's letter, I was feeling pretty prone to side with him on opposing the AUMF for similar reasons. I'm generally critical of the President's half-measures to deal with problems like Russia, Syrian chemical weapons usage, and other matters.

But I've changed my mind. I think this is a solid AUMF.

I do think there's a clearer plan in place than Capuano believes, but also that requiring too clear a plan before authorizing force is unreasonable. The President's military advisers need the freedom and flexibility to formulate and adjust a plan over time, and the AUMF gives them the green light to move when they're ready--it does not require that any particular action happen now.

Let's talk a bit about what might happen under the AUMF.

Offensive in Iraq

The plan for Iraq is incredibly clear and pretty sound. We've already seen that airstrike coordination in Kobane was critical in helping the outnumbered and outgunned force turn the tide (and continues to help in the counter-offensive). The 3,000 US troops should be a huge boon--both for morale and effectiveness--if they join the assault on Mosul. And they should. In fact, while it's not been announced, I suspect the wording of the AUMF makes it very clear that this would be the plan.

Mosul has about 2,000 ISIS fighters holding it right now. 25,000 Iraqi and Kurdish Peshmerga forces are going to be thrown at the city, and the big question is whether the Iraqi fighters are going to break and run as soon as ISIS troops sneeze. I believe very much that having US soldiers in the trenches--along with witnessing well-timed airstrikes just before the assault--will keep Iraqi troops confident enough to point their guns in the right direction. House-to-house fighting sucks, and ISIS is going to make it very hard for civilians to flee (making airstrikes tougher). But the Iraqis and Americans can take their time and regroup in safer areas if they get beat up in any parts of the city.

The big question is that since it's been so broadly announced, will ISIS try to shore up defenses in Mosul? Maybe. The President has gotten some funny looks from the news media and some politicians, and even the Iraqi government: "why the heck would you tell the enemy they have 2 months to fortify your primary target?" It seems totally backwards. One generally doesn't tell the enemy the time and location of one's next offensive.

Once again, I think there is some subtlety at play that is lost in the knee-jerk reaction.

One thing that we must keep in mind is that coalition forces have total air dominance. The US is hitting targets in Mosul probably as you're reading this, and probably while you're sleeping, too. So obviously the coalition has a few months to "soften" Mosul.

But what about a flood of reinforcements? Let's take a look at the region around Mosul:

Thanks for being awesome, Wikipedia

Mosul has some space around it where it could draw fighters back from the front line--I don't know how many are there, but they're actively fighting Kurdish troops in the east, so if they turned tail, the Kurds would be able to recover some territory and place heavy guns within striking distance. At a rough guess, I'd say the local villages, if abandoned, could beef up Mosul to about 4,000 troops. Remember that while these guys are zealous-and well-armed, they are not particularly expertly trained and don't have military intelligence to help at all. The intelligence gap was probably a big part of why the US was able to lead the Kurds so effectively to pick off fog-blinded pockets of ISIS resistance in Kobane.

But obviously the concern is that reserves from other places not under pressure (like ar-Raqqah or elsewhere) could send columns of these guys and turn Mosul into a bloodbath. Let's look at Mosul another way to consider this:

Thanks, Google Earth and MS Paint

Around Mosul is a whole bunch of wide open desert, and I can guarantee you that desert has a few drones circling overhead constantly (for those who have seen the movie "Zero Dark Thirty," recall the drones constantly circling over Bin Laden's hideout for a few hundred days), taking a look at those two roads coming in from the west and south in addition to scouting targets for US airstrikes.

If anyone out there has a good idea of how to sneak in hundreds of troops or dozens of heavy weapons along those highways, I'd love to know (leave thoughts in comments). But I really don't think it's possible.

And here's what I really think is going on; if I'm right, I tip my hat to the administration:

I believe the President is trying to goad ISIS into trying to reinforce Mosul. 


If a huge column of trucks and heavy weapons starts rolling from more fortified positions, it will have to travel through a lot of desert and be exposed for at least 3 hours (if coming from the closest ISIS town, al-Qamishili).

Thanks, Google Maps.

American or Jordanian fighter-bombers can get where they need to go in about 30 minutes.

If the coalition doesn't totally blow it, Route 1 would become 2015's Highway of Death.
Thanks, Wikipedia

Is ISIS going to fall for it? Maybe. As we talked about in an earlier post on Kobane, ISIS' power comes from legitimacy and a sense of divine inevitability. Taking Mosul made it horrifying and seemingly irresistible. But nobody likes betting on a loser, so their recruiting (and intimidation) strategy depends in part on winning. I'd be surprised if ISIS was really willing to let Mosul go without a big fight. Furthermore, if they were able to defeat the best efforts that Iraq/the US could put up to root them out of Mosul, it would be a massive symbolic (and military) victory that would probably convince the Iraqis that resistance is just totally futile. There is a whole lot at stake, and I'd be mighty surprised if ISIS was willing to commit to a fight they're probably going to lose.

So it could work. It's even possible the Iraqi defense minister is actually in on the plan and is complaining to make ISIS think reinforcing is a good idea. If so, once again: well done.

The other option, of course, is to abandon Mosul if it looks like it's unwinnable and not suffer a humiliating military defeat. If ISIS believes Mosul is doomed, it is unlikely to cling to the city. There's some evidence it might be thinking this way: ISIS is apparently ditching the big base south of Mosul that they have held for 7 months. The announcement about the Mosul offensive may mean that ISIS would want to focus forces for a counter-attack elsewhere that is not under heavy bombardment and scrutiny, to keep the Iraqis off-balance.

Fallujah, Tikrit, and other areas along the Euphrates in Iraq will require significantly more work than Mosul. Think of Mosul as a place the Iraqis can cut their teeth and gain some confidence for the real work ahead in Sunni-dominated regions.

What about Syria?

Syria is a theater that remains somewhat impervious to anything but a massive ground invasion. I'll repeat: the government and rebel forces aren't going to do it until the civil war resolves in some way, which won't happen for years. The Kurds could pick up territory once the Iraqi Peshmerga forces get relief from the Mosul offensive.

We've seen that the Kurds are perfectly willing to occupy territory outside of their primary ethnic strongholds (see the map below--they're currently occupying Kirkuk and northwest Syria) and so may push in northern Syria to create buffer space. 

CIA, via Wikipedia

But the Kurds simply have no interest in moving to the Euphrates, where ISIS is strong and rules with total impunity. I really just don't think anyone at all has a plan to deal with Syria, and the AUMF only sets up the administration to make a move if the Syrian political situation changes or Jordan/Syria/Egypt get fed up with ISIS hanging out next door and decide to go on a major ground offensive. 

It's possible that success in Iraq will be inspiring and that Jordan, which remains incredibly pissed off, and Egypt, similarly pissed off about 21 Copts being similarly brutally murdered, could decide it's just plain time to lend serious military support to Syria on top of the current airstrikes. 

But, frankly, their armies are small and their economies stretched, and they'd only enter Syria if the civil war ends and moderate forces can finally unite against ISIS.

I'll maintain that if ISIS falls in Syria, its ill-advised strategy of trying to bring Jordan and Egypt into the fight will be part of its undoing.


Libya's divided forces have opened the door for continued ISIS expansion, which now holds 3 towns (2 weeks ago, it was only Derna), having added Sirte and Nofilya. 

Seriously, Donate to Wikipedia

The grey (in Benghazi and elsewhere) is Ansar al-Sharia, who is a totally different (but ISIS-friendly) menace not covered by the AUMF. (Syria has similar pockets of these guys, though right now they're not really fighting with the "good guy" rebels, so we're making the same mistake--as with ISIS--of leaving them alone "until" the "good guy" rebels win.)

Jordan and Egypt want the UN to authorize force in Libya to nip ISIS' presence there in the bud. Egypt is already putting down airstrikes, but now that Libya is in ceasefire, it's a prime place for US special forces, trainers, and airstrike coordinators to help the Tobruk government take back Derna.

A Bit of Good News

And just because everyone likes a bit of good news: ISIS has been totally pushed out of the Baghdad environs and is getting pinned up against a river by the Kurds near Kobane. 

New territory from last week in Kobane circled in yellow.

 Still Wikipedia

New territory gained by the Iraqi government over the past 6 weeks circled in red.
I'll let you guess where I got this one

The Iraqi forces are already pushing back pretty steadily, which is a sign that, despite everyone freaking out about readiness, the Iraqis are showing they can put the fight to ISIS and win.

If you got this far, thanks for taking the time. Leave me some comments about what you want to hear about next, either about ISIS or otherwise!

Update! Kurdish Peshmerga Forces Working on Cutting Off Mosul

Reader and generally-smart-guy Shir shared with me this great article and map showing a Kurdish advance on Route 1, which ISIS is using to resupply Mosul. We discussed above the risk of sending big columns down that road, but if the Kurds can hold the area for the next few months, getting military and support resources to Mosul will be a lot harder and more dangerous--they'd be much more open to ambushes from the Kurds and airstrikes from the Americans. It makes the assault on Mosul a much more likely prospect.

The Washington Post and I seem to have some agreement on the general strategy for isolating Mosul from reinforcement in the coming counter-offensive. Exciting stuff. Expect me to be blogging obsessively about it.

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