Expelling ISIS from Mosul: At What Cost?

Expelling ISIS from Mosul
Expelling ISIS from Mosul

The military operation to take back the city of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city and a stronghold for ISIS, began in earnest on Monday morning. The purpose of the offensive is to expel ISIS from Mosul and surrounding areas, where hundreds of thousands are still living under the bloody thumb of this terrorist organization. The majority of the population, which was well over 2 million before ISIS took over, has already fled.

Judging by the number of troops engaged, it seems like it would be an easy win for Iraq and the coalition forces. According to CNN, the number of Iraqi and coalition troops, which includes the United States, is roughly 100,000, plus air support. ISIS numbers are apparently harder to pin down, but estimates for the number of ISIS fighters are anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000, depending on the source. With a troop ratio of 10-to-1 it would seem that a win wouldn’t be all that challenging. But ISIS is well known for putting up fierce resistance. That, combined with tactics such as suicide car bombs, improvised explosive devices, land mines, snipers, and the routine use of civilians as human shields, means this fight could last weeks or even months. Iraqi and coalition forces may have had months to plan and prepare for it, but so has ISIS.

The humanitarian crisis that could result from this conflict is mind-boggling. It’s estimated, there are more than one million civilians still in Mosul, many of whom are children. Because there are currently no safe routes out of this major city, civilians have only two options. They can stay and possibly be injured or killed in sniper attacks, crossfire, explosions, or as the result of being used as human shields, or they can try to leave Mosul and face booby traps, car bombs, and land mines. At a minimum, men, women, and children will be leaving Mosul by the hundreds of thousands in the next few weeks.

A worst-case scenario? Some 600,000 refugees leave Mosul with no place to live and no way to survive on their own. The U.N. and other organizations are racing to meet the humanitarian need, which may far surpass that of Syria, by building temporary shelters. But they’re way behind where they need to be and in need of huge sums of money to get there.

Driving ISIS out of Mosul would mean success for the Iraqis, but it definitely won’t end there. The global vacuum that leaves countries devoid of governance and subject to takeover will be at work again. The Sunnis, Kurds, Shia, and Christians all have their own idea of what kind of government Mosul needs, one of which (Sunnis) has no interest in an Islamic State. If Iraq is not committed to combining efforts to make one unified government that represents all of these elements with some semblance of permanence, then Iraq is up for grabs again to the most powerful bidder.

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