The problem of what to do about the Islamic State is an enormously complicated one. Right now, though, there seems to be an opportunity to propose at least a partial solution that, if successful, would be a major military victory of strategic value. This plan would be to let the French military lead the effort to retake the Iraqi city of Mosul from the Islamic State. Not only would this be an enormous blow to the soi-disant "Caliphate," but it would also be a productive way for France to fight back in retaliation for the recent slaughter in Paris.
The city of Mosul would be an ideal place for this to happen. Located in northern Iraq, the city was historically mostly Arab, bordered on the north and east by traditional Kurdish lands. As you can see on an up-to-date war map of Iraq, Mosul is one of the most strategic strongholds the Islamic State controls in Iraq. Lands to the north and east of the city are still held by Kurdish forces, who also just successfully cut off Mosul's main supply route from the west (towards Syria) with their recent capture of Sinjar. To the south of Mosul is a highway leading to Baghdad. The Iraqi army (the official government forces) have had some success pushing north on this route, taking both Tikrit and Baiji. Their progress, however, has been very slow.
Looking at the situation through the lens of military tactics, you can see that a classic "pincers" movement is -- again, very slowly -- being executed, from the north by the Kurds and from the south by the Iraqi army. This could (if successful) eventually lead to a siege of Mosul, if the two pincers ever meet and effectively surround the city. The Islamic State in Mosul would then be cut off from resupply.
The alternative to this overall military strategy would be to move as quickly as possible from the north and east, taking the battle directly to Mosul while still leaving an exit for the Islamic State fighters to flee towards (to the west, back into Syria), should they so choose. The problem with this idea is that it would take an overwhelming force to have any decent chance of success -- and that likely means tens of thousands of ground forces. I should admit that I am no military expert, so I have no idea what the ideal number of troops would be. Mosul is a city of over a million people, and it's going to require some brutal street-by-street fighting. There will be snipers, booby traps and other IEDs. Urban fights such as this are the hardest to undertake (ask any soldier, they'll tell you). But whether the number of troops needed is 10,000 or 30,000, they could be provided by France instead of the United States.
America's problem is essentially a political one, not a military one. Our armed forces could likely take Mosul any time we so desired -- but the cost might be unacceptably high. The American public is still pretty war-weary, especially in that region of the world. President Obama isn't going to send 20,000 infantry troops to take Mosul, but even most of his sharpest detractors -- the Republicans now running for president -- are also thinking twice before enthusiastically campaigning on sending tens of thousands of American soldiers to fight the Islamic State.
Bombing is politically acceptable to both sides of our domestic political debate. Bombing, as we've just seen, is also politically acceptable for the French. François Hollande has already called the Paris attack an act of war, so it's not that big a stretch of the imagination to think that the French public might right now be eager to do more than just dropping 20 bombs on the Islamic State. Taking Mosul would be an excellent opportunity for the French to hit back hard and deny the Islamic State a major region of Iraq.
There is speculation that the Islamic State may have pre-planned the Paris attack, but also that its timing might have been influenced by the fact that they just suffered a battlefield defeat. The Kurds taking Sinjar -- if they can hold both it and the crucial stretch of road next to it -- was a big military victory. Today, however, the world image of the Islamic State is not that they were weakened by the loss of this important supply route, but rather that they successfully launched an attack on Paris. The propaganda difference between those two is huge, which is why it's easy to speculate that the loss might have triggered the decision to attack Paris at this particular time.
In purely propagandistic terms, the French reacting by sending 20,000 soldiers to retake Mosul would be hard to ignore. It would, in fact, be a body blow to the Islamic State and the self-identity they present to the world. It's a lot harder to convince new recruits to your cause when you are seen as losing major ground, to state the obvious.
President Obama should offer an invitation to François Hollande, for his country to shoulder the effort to take Mosul back from the Islamic State. Neither Democrats nor Republicans have been eager to publicly call for tens of thousands of American troops to immediately be sent to Iraq, but the public feelings in France might just support such a move right now. America would be seen as magnanimously allowing an ally to wreak some vengeance for being attacked, with our full air and logistics support. The French could proudly strike back, after suffering terrorist attacks on her own soil.
I do not make such a suggestion callously. Retaking Mosul is not going to be easy, no matter who does it or how long it takes. Even if the French wholeheartedly embraced this plan, it's not going to happen overnight. And a lot of brave soldiers are going to die in the effort -- there is no getting around that. Whether this price is politically acceptable is up to the French people, really. It's for them to decide.
Even the aftermath will be messy, it also bears pointing out. The Kurds and the Iraqi government forces don't see eye-to-eye on where the borders between their successive regions should begin and end. After the city is retaken, it will need to be defended. The central Iraqi government should be the ones to do so, since historically the city has never had a Kurdish majority. France and the coalition to defeat the Islamic State should make it clear to Baghdad, however, that if they aren't willing to defend Mosul (and capable of sustaining such a defense) against future Islamic State attacks, then perhaps the Kurds should be given control of the city (and all the oil fields). That might be enough of a goad to get the central government to step up.
There is no certainty in war. Nobody's saying this fight will be an easy one. There will be a high cost to bear in soldiers' lives to wrest control of Mosul away from the Islamic State. So far, America has not been willing to bear that cost. But, right now, France might just be willing to do so.
Chris Weigant blogs at:
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant