WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon, departing from previous reluctance to disclose specifics about the fight against the Islamic State, on Thursday announced plans to retake Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, between April and May.
A U.S. Central Command official, speaking at a background press briefing at the Pentagon, said the operation would involve an estimated 20,000 to 25,000 Iraqi troops, including three Peshmerga brigades. The U.S. estimates 1,000 to 2,000 Islamic State fighters control Mosul.
“Militarily, ISIL is in decline,” said the official, referring to the Islamic State by the name preferred by the U.S. government. The Islamic State "has a very difficult time seizing and holding additional terrain beyond what it has right now. In fact, in Iraq it is losing ground every single day.”
The official didn't say why the Pentagon would publicly disclose details of a military operation so far in advance, except to show Iraqi troops' commitment to the operation. Mosul is currently the Islamic State's de facto capital in Iraq (the group considers its true seat to be Raqqa, Syria).
The attack is planned to begin before Ramadan, which begins June 17, and the summer, said the official. The heat "becomes problematic if it goes much later than that,” he said, adding that the date could change if Iraqi troops aren't combat-ready.
The Defense Department says 2,000 Iraqi soldiers are prepared to fight and an additional 3,200 are undergoing training. Five Iraqi Army brigades, totaling almost 10,000 troops, have been selected as the initial attack force. Those five brigades, who currently man checkpoints and serve as defense forces, will begin training shortly.
The Pentagon's disclosure of Mosul assault plans come just one week after Islamic State fighters seized parts of al-Baghdadi, a town in the Anbar province. The town is three miles from the Ain al-Asad air base, which hosts 320 U.S. Marines and their Iraqi trainees.
“Any loss is tragic, but I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s strategic,” the official said of the Islamic State’s incursion into al-Baghdadi. He insisted that the group possesses only a “micro-offensive capability” and must carefully choose how to allocate limited fighters and resources. “In total, our effects are outpacing his ability to regenerate,” he said.
These assertions contrast with reports of Islamic State activity in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Lebanon, and Libya, where the group recently claimed responsibility for beheading 21 Egyptian Christians.
Egypt responded to the attack immediately, launching airstrikes against Islamic State training camps on Monday. The following day, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi called on the United Nations to intervene militarily in Libya, calling the 2011 NATO operate to topple Muammar Gaddafi, an “unfinished mission.” The response from the U.S. was muted.
When pushed for a position on military intervention during Wednesday’s press briefing, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said, “We do believe a political solution, one that’s led by the U.N., is the best path forward.”
Sisi has since dropped the request for foreign military intervention, instead supporting Libya’s request for the removal of a U.N. arms embargo that has been in place since 2011.
Psaki pushed back on this as well. “We have supported, continue to support the U.N. approval process currently in place for Libya. It permits transfers necessary to support the Libyan Government while allowing the Security Council to seek guard against the high risk that weapons may be diverted to non-state actors. That continues to be our position,” she said on Thursday.
By the Pentagon’s estimate, the State Department’s reluctance to join Egypt in the fight against the Islamic State in Libya seems logical. The Central Command official described the notion that the Islamic State is rapidly expanding its global presence as a misconception. “Those organizations in those locations have existed for some time,” he said, referring to fighters claiming Islamic State allegiance in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Libya and Lebanon. “What ISIL and Daesh have provided is not necessarily a new capability, but leadership and inspiration. The core capability, though, has been in existence for some time.”
Michael Horowitz, a senior intelligence analyst at MAX Security Solutions, expressed a similar view. “While the recent video depicting the beheading of the 21 Egyptian Christians has certainly boosted their media presence, the Islamic State has been in Libya for months, since at least October 2014, when a militia based in the eastern city of Derna pledged allegiance to the group’s 'Caliph.'" Horowitz wrote in an email. "The group was formed by both former Islamic State fighters from a specific Libyan brigade called the al-Battar al-Libya Brigade, and from local jihadists, who were 'co-opted' by the group. The recent gains are, thus, significant but they should be put in perspective, as Libya is a mosaic of militias fighting each other."
Horowitz said the Islamic State is "certainly the most extreme and dangerous" of the country's radical groups, "but not the largest at this time, as other groups such as Ansar al-Sharia have a broader presence and greater military strength.”
Clarification: Language has been amended to more accurately characterize Mosul's status within the territory occupied by the Islamic State.