I have no idea whether the strategic reviews ordered by Obama will check the free fall in Afghanistan, but here’s a suggestion: Instead of trying to import the counterinsurgency tactics it employed successfully in Iraq, the U.S. military should take a hard look at where it failed.
In a word: Mosul.
After years of much-touted offensives* by both Iraqi and U.S. forces, the northern city remains the deadliest piece of urban real estate in Iraq. A year ago, two large-scale Iraqi Army operations were supposed to break the backbone of the Sunni insurgency and end the cycle of violence fed by nationalism, crime, Islamic fanaticism and general despair. It didn’t. The 15-month tour of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, one of the most accomplished and proficient units in the U.S. Army, was by all accounts a mixed bag. Violence was reduced, but car bombs still wreak havoc, politicians are assassinated, IEDs kill innocents, and after local elections upset the political balance of power, Kurdish-Arab tensions threaten to escalate into war.
The lesson? There are simply too many actors involved in the multilayered conflict in Mosul for classic COIN to work. First of all, the fault lines are not sectarian but ethnic. You can’t protect the population by walling off neighbourhoods, because you wouldn’t know whom to wall in and whom to keep out. Second, you can’t cut off terrorist infiltration because you don’t have enough troops, and a single dirt berm doesn’t do it. Third, you can’t pay off the hardcore militants, because they don’t want your money; and you can’t pay off the gangsters because they don’t need your money. And fourth, you can’t stop the IEDs, because there’s always a jobless IDP willing to dump a pressure plate on a road for ten bucks.
A porous international border, lucrative smuggling routes, a restless refugee population, transnational jihadis mingling with local nationalists, and an explosive ethnic mix — if this rings a bell, it’s because the war in Mosul has more in common with the morass we face in Afghanistan than it has with Baghdad, Anbar or even Diyala. And the fact that the city remains a bleeding wound six years after the invasion should give us pause.
[*UPDATE: Here we go again.]