ERBIL, Iraq — With the days of Baghdad preparing an “every man for himself” defense against Islamic State far behind, the caliphate’s Mosul capital was retaken last month as the once-dominating terror group is closer than ever to defeat in Iraq.
Now, only three major ISIS-held strongholds remain — two of which are surrounded by Iraqi and Kurdish forces.
Tel Afar Pocket
After taking Mosul and sweeping the surrounding areas, the Iraqi and Kurdish forces now encircle Tel Afar, 50 miles west of Mosul. This momentum and the immediate security needs of the adjacent areas make Tel Afar a top priority for war planners.
With 200,000 predominantly Iraqi Turkish residents before the arrival of ISIS, Tel Afar is a third of the size of Mosul. Yet, the up to 2,000 ISIS militants have had months to prepare a tangled nest of urban and subterranean defenses. Lying in wait and with no path to escape, the fight will be to the death for ISIS and a costly, house-to-house operation for the Iraqi forces.
American advisers scrambled to replace and refit the tired Iraqi forces — worn from the nine-month Mosul campaign — but say they are ready to finish the job. A spokesman for the Popular Mobilization Forces, an Iranian-backed Shia group, says 20,000 members are joining the offensive, which will take “not more than weeks,” he predicted.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi announced the Tel Afar offensive Sunday morning.
Estimates place the remaining ISIS strength in Hawija and the surrounding 500 villages at around 1,000 terrorists. Hawija, just southwest of Kirkuk, is a persistent security liability for the semi-autonomous Kurdish enclave. ISIS fighters test Kurdish lines, with intermittent suicide attacks and gun battles in the southern outskirts of oil-rich Kirkuk. Compared with Tel Afar, Hawija is, therefore, a higher priority for the Kurds, but political issues complicate the way forward.
Like Tal Afar, Hawija is surrounded to the south by the Iraqi forces, and to the north by Kurdish forces. The landmark cooperation between the two for Mosul is now fraying due to the disputed territorial status of Kirkuk and over the impending Kurdish independence referendum, which Baghdad does not recognize.
While the Kurds say that there’s no coordination with the Popular Mobilization Forces — who take a threatening posture on Kirkuk and the referendum — Prime Minister Abadi said in May that all forces would participate in the eventual liberation. The Kurds desire to inherit long-term security, yet they would not want to take administrative responsibility for Hawija’s 98 percent Arab majority. It remains to be seen what the political payoff will be to the Kurds if they participate in the battle to take re-Hawija.
Iraq’s largest and westernmost province has always proven one of the most difficult parts of Iraq to take, let alone secure — even during a full American occupation of the country. The ISIS-held areas of Anbar are contiguous with ISIS-held swaths of eastern Syria, allowing manpower and resources to be smuggled easily between the areas.
It is a challenge for officials to say precisely how many ISIS fighters remain in Anbar — or where they are distributed, with an estimated 4,000 militants remaining and 3,000 formerly-paid supporters across Iraq, many moving freely even in liberated areas like Mosul.
That is why Anbar will likely be the last area of Iraq that would come under control of federal security forces. Considering the geography, history of a festering insurgency, and overwhelming ISIS success, it is hard to imagine it ever being secure.
Once Tal Afar, Hawija and Anbar are won, ISIS will ostensibly have lost their last remaining foothold in Iraq — at least as a clearly-identifiable, organized force. For ISIS to survive, it will have to adapt and operate from hard-to-reach terrain and plant sleeper cells in urban areas.
Iraq’s insurgency has claimed around 1,000 to 2,000 lives monthly for the last four years. Mitigating the sectarian tensions in Iraq that gave rise to ISIS in the first place — and countering hidden cells and hotbeds of extremism across the country — is another battle that will continue long after ISIS no longer holds territory.
This article appeared originally in RealClear Defense and was reprinted with the permission of the author.