Smart Signalling? CENTCOM reveals Mosul strategy
Written by Michael Cohen, Assistant Professor at Department of Political Science and Public Management
U.S. Central Command has revealed that its forces are coordinating and training over 20,000 Iraqi and Kurdish troops in preparation for a Spring attack to retake Mosul from 1000-2000 Islamic State fighters. Critics such as Senator John McCain have alleged that this disclosure could undermine the mission and take unnecessary U.S., Iraqi and coalition lives. Why did CENTCOM provide such specific details about an imminent campaign?
One possible explanation is to compel ISIS to leave Mosul without fighting. We might expect that the United States and ISIS would struggle to reach a war saving settlement, so anything that credibly reveals Washington’s military strategy and inevitable victory – at least in Mosul – would save a lot of blood and treasure.
But CENTCOM is probably signaling to its allies too. Jordanian airstrikes have recently hit Mosul, and this may cause ISIS fighters to believe that fleeing would leave them vulnerable to coalition air power. Their response under these circumstances may well be digging in for a bloody fight in Mosul: the disclosure may be both a signal to ISIS troops in Mosul that the game is up and a signal to coalition partners to allow ISIS fighters in Iraq’s second biggest city to flee. It is probably also an attempt to demonstrate U.S. trustworthiness as a partner and to embolden beleaguered Iraqi forces.
The underlying strategy is to defeat ISIS with minimal cost in blood and treasure: get ISIS to leave Mosul without a fight and Iraqi forces to lead from the front. But it’s far from clear that Washington will be able to pull this off. U.S. forces, already committed to airpower, intelligence and advising in the upcoming offensive, may yet find themselves in offensive ground operations.