This editorial was published in The Fayetteville Observer.
This is a test. And it’s as big as a test can get. What happens in Mosul in the next few months may steer American Middle East policy for years to come.
And it goes a step farther than that: What happens in Mosul is likely to have a big influence in deployments from Fort Bragg for a long time too.
The battle for the biggest Iraqi city under Islamic State control began this week. Amid airstrikes by U.S.-led aircraft and heavy artillery bombardment, Kurdish peshmerga fighters led the ground assaults on towns around Mosul. In some, they met heavy resistance. Others were largely unpopulated, albeit still studded with explosive devices. By the end of the battle’s first day, the Kurds had recaptured about 80 square miles of Iraqi territory from the radical terrorist group that sought to establish a fundamentalist Islamic caliphate in Iraq and Syria.
It’s doubtful, though, that the Kurds will continue to regain territory that fast, even after Iraq’s elite counterterrorism forces join the battle, along with thousands of regular Iraqi troops and some sectarian militia fighters as well. Mosul has more than a million residents and the troops battling to take the city will make every effort to minimize civilian casualties.
While there may be some American special operations troops working with the Kurdish and Iraqi fighters, there are few American boots on the battleground. But in many other ways, this is still a major effort for this country, beginning with the 18th Airborne Corps’ headquarters, which is coordinating the effort to retake Mosul, two years after it fell into IS control.
That’s the test: Can American forces simply train and coordinate native fighters in Iraq and still see the defeat of the Islamic State? Past efforts failed, but President Obama believes it’s different this time, that Mosul can be saved and IS driven out without a major involvement of anything beyond American air power.
We hope he’s right, but his resistance to military intervention in the Middle East is what opened the door to the rise of IS. The battle for Mosul wouldn’t be needed today if American troops hadn’t been entirely withdrawn from Iraq earlier in Obama’s presidency.
The test is twofold: Can Iraqi and Kurdish forces drive out IS? And when the battle is won, can they hold together a defensive coalition that will prevent other hostile groups from seizing power?
We hope the answer is yes. Because whatever happens in Mosul and beyond, it may also play a big role in guiding future deployments from Fort Bragg and determine whether the missions are for training or for war.