U.S. military officials believe that the Iraqi offensive to retake Mosul from the militant group ISIS could come as early as April and involve between 20,000 to 25,000 Iraqi troops.
The plan could be delayed depending on training and equipment schedules for the Iraq troops that would be involved in the offensive, a U.S. Central Command official said, noting that ISIS is on the defensive and that the U.S. military plan against ISIS is “slightly ahead of the campaign.”
The official provided unusually detailed plans in a briefing for Pentagon reporters about the long-awaited push by Iraqi forces to retake Iraq’s second-largest city from the 1,000 to 2,000 ISIS fighters believed to there. The plans to launch an offensive in April or May are ahead of predictions made last October by U.S. Centcom officials that an offensive might not occur for another year.
As many as 12 Iraqi Army brigades or between 20,000 to 25,000 troops would be involved in retaking the city that was seized by ISIS in June, said the official.
An attack force of five Iraqi Army brigades or 10,000 troops would push into the city from the south with another three brigades making up a reserve force. Another three brigades of Kurdish Peshmerga forces “will help contain from the north and isolate from the west,” said the official.
A “Mosul fighting force” consisting mostly of former Mosul police officers and some tribal elements are currently being trained to provide stability operations after the main fighting has occurred, the U.S. military officials said. Another brigade of elite counter-terrorism forces will also be involved in the offensive.
“The five Iraqi brigades will all go through our training sites before we commence the operation on Mosul,” said the official. The U.S. has established five training sites for Iraqi and Kurdish brigades.
In coming weeks, the 3,200 Iraqi Army troops currently receiving training will replace the 10,000 troops that will be trained for the attack on Mosul, the official said. Training schedules may have to be adjusted to facilitate plans for an offensive in April or May.
U.S. military officials are typically reticent in providing details about the timing or force levels of planned military offensives. When asked why so many details about the planned offensive were being provided, the official said it was “to describe the level of detail that ISF are doing and the level of commitment that they have to this and the significance of this upcoming operation.”
But telegraphing details of the plan could also be an element of psychological warfare against ISIS given the numbers of Iraqi forces that would take on a much smaller force inside Mosul.
The U.S. and coalition airstrikes have taken such a toll on ISIS that they cannot regenerate the number of fighters being lost on the battlefield, the official said, noting that ISIS has sustained campaign losses in seven to eight months that are double what the U.S. has suffered in 14 years of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. A combined 6,694 U.S. military service members have died in those conflicts.
“There is no organization in the world that can suffer those kinds of casualties and not have a tremendous impact on their ability to achieve their long term aims,” said the official, describing ISIS as being in a “zero-sum game” where it can no longer position forces without having to take them out of other fighting positions.
“They are losing ground in Iraq every day,” said the official, who noted that ISIS is in a defensive posture inside Iraq though small elements are still capable of conducting limited “micro-offensives,” as happened last week when ISIS took over the town of al-Baghdadi in Anbar Province.
Given that Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said that American forward air controllers might be needed to call in airstrikes in complex operations like retaking Mosul, the official said a decision about whether to prepare American forward air controllers for such a mission would likely have to be made soon to accommodate the April-May timeframe.
Another key component of the ISIS strategy is the training of a force of 5,000 moderate Syrian rebels to fight ISIS inside Syria.
Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby said Wednesday that 1,200 potential trainees were being screened by U.S. Central Command and that training could begin as early as mid-March.
The Centcom official said the training will be conducted at four sites in the Middle East. A training facility in Jordan will be the first location to begin training, another training site in Turkey would begin operations soon. A third training site in Saudi Arabia could open within one to three months, while the fourth site in Qatar may not open for another six to nine months.