Last month the tanks were rolling in the Iraqi desert. Yet now the Iraqi army’s offensive to retake the northern city of Mosul from the militant group Islamic State (IS) is paused.
Major General Najim Abdullah al-Jubouri says Iraqi forces are waiting for federal police units and local tribal fighters. Once they arrive, government forces will continue the offensive but the city’s recapture will be long and slow. The offensive has had only limited success since it was launched March 24. Government troops have retaken only three villages from IS so far. Nevertheless, it highlights how difficult dislodging IS will be.
This is because the war is a “level of effort” campaign, in which coalition forces are directed to act within tight regulatory and political boundaries. While in normal combat theatres this may be workable, coalition officials are not working backward to sufficiently resource or govern the war effort based on the desired outcome of the destruction of IS. Hence the slow progress.
The pace and the level of effort in Iraq is disappointing. For instance, the air campaign is like a fine Irish mist when it should be like a thunderstorm. Striking targets at the rate of 20 a day is modest at best. A low tolerance for collateral damage may be desirable but passing up opportunities for multiple strikes is a less moral position if the enemy's capacity to do harm to innocents is not suppressed.
Now, these are always hard choices and it's unfair to second-guess combat commanders. It has to be remembered, however, that this war is not solely kinetic – there is a significant ideological component. A battlefield defeat of IS directly undercuts its jihadist narrative. IS is considered popular because it is successful, with every victory proving the will and the hand of God. And nothing weakens that narrative like battlefield defeat.
Mosul will be important to retake but Western forces have almost no effect on the broader ideological dynamics. The West is less successful at breaking the overarching narrative than it is at killing people. And ultimately, coalition forces cannot kill their way out of this problem. If that were possible, this fight would have been over 15 years ago.
The Western-led coalition is far more dependent on allies in the Islamic world to influence the ideological battle. Yet to begin that conversation, the developed world must get over the fantasy that the fight has nothing to do with Islam. The general response is that all Muslims hate the West. Both of those positions are wrong but there needs to be an adult conversation.
The fighting does have something to do with Islam. The king of Jordan says there is a civil war within Islam, while the president of Egypt waggles his finger at that country’s respected theological faculty. While perhaps hyperbolic, the following is not without truth: the West may be merely collateral damage in a war within one of the world's great monotheisms. So the world cannot resolve the conflict by pretending it’s not happening. Therefore, empowering voices within Islam will be the best answer, not just for ourselves, but for Islam.
So while the fighting continues in Iraq, how far out should the metal detectors be placed from airports? A useful metaphor is perhaps football. After the attacks in Brussels and Paris the conversation immediately switched to the need for better or stronger goalies. How come police didn't know this guy? Why didn’t they arrest him sooner? This is all still penalty kicks. And with so many ways to kick the ball in the back of the net, terrorists will always find ways to score.
While practising defence is fine, it’s not a winning hand. The extended metaphor is to control the midfield. Move the game up and undertake necessary tasks such as espionage and collecting metadata – all the tasks about which Europeans wring their hands. After Brussels, it might be a good time for Europe to have a conversation about electronic surveillance to control their midfield.
Because after the midfield is controlled, terrorism can be blunted before it strikes airports. Spinning the metaphor one more revolution: why doesn’t the developed world think about scoring goals? In other words, aggressively take this fight to where the enemy resides.
That means getting tough in Raqqa and Mosul and across the Islamic State. That would require an international understanding that the world is a battlefield – which is another adult conversation in desperate need.
To get the tanks moving again near Mosul, alongside ramping up airstrikes one idea may be to use social media – or even traditional leaflets – to blanket that part of the earth with the notification that, if you move oil, you are going to die. Period. Even between the tight boundaries, that would be a legitimate act of armed conflict. It must be made perfectly clear this coalition is serious.
Whether all this happens or not, the point is that the real answers are deeper. They require both a change within Islam, which may take generations. But it also requires a maturing of the domestic security debate within industrialised countries. As it stands, the necessary political will to coordinate each of these fronts is weak at best and non-existent at worse.