In June, Islamic State's fighters in Mosul had been pushed back to a warren of small streets in Mosul. On June 21, with a few square kilometers of territory still under their command, they blew up the iconic al-Nuri mosque from where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had proclaimed the "caliphate" three summers before, in 2014. Overhead there were layers of US-led coalition aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles, helicopters and other craft, all looking for ISIS fighters and helping the Iraqi Army progress street by street.
"The challenge we faced is we were operating in a city of 1.8 million the size of Philadelphia and the enemy was embedded in the civilian population, and we did everything we could do to protect civilians," recalls US Air Force Brig.-Gen. Andrew A. Croft.
Croft is deputy commander for the Air, Combined Joint Forces Land Component Command of Operation Inherent Resolve -- the US military's intervention against ISIS. In short, "I am the guy who helped run and coordinate the air campaign in Mosul as it came down to the final days," he says in a phone interview from Iraq. The general, who holds an MBA from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, was appointed to his current position in April 2017 and will serve through next May.
He describes the campaign for Mosul, which lasted from October 2016 to July 2017, as the first time in history such a precision-guided war was waged on this scale. "We did a lot of coordination with Iraqi security forces on the ground, figuring out where Daesh [ISIS] is, who is Daesh and being able to attack them... they did everything they could do to frustrate our efforts using civilian structures so that was the challenge. What enabled us was the precision weapons are more precise than ever in history."
The coalition, which includes around 68 countries, some two dozen of which are involved on the ground or in the air, had at its disposal weapons ranging from 10 lbs (4.5 kg.) to 2,000 lbs [some 900 kg.], he says. "We have unmanned aircraft, cameras and infrared and all networked together, so everyone on ground or air has the same picture, and that allows instantaneous communication with Iraqis. [That] enabled us with high situational awareness, we know where ISIS is, and civilians and ISF [Iraqi security forces] and how to minimize the damage if possible, that is how we overcame the challenge of Mosul."
The attempt to minimize damage and casualties didn't always work. On March 17, a building in the al-Jadidah neighborhood of West Mosul was bombed and dozens of civilians were killed. Although initial news reports said more than 200 people died, an investigation by the US found that a precision guided bomb had been dropped on two ISIS snipers in a two-story building. "Neither coalition nor [Iraq counterterrorism] forces knew that civilians were sheltered in the bottom floors of the structures."
Since the battle ended on July 10, Iraqi security forces have continued to confront ISIS threats in Mosul. However, operations on the ground have shifted to focus on the next targets, which are thought to include the liberation of Tal Afar, to the northwest of Mosul; Hawija, which is near Kirkuk; and areas of western Iraq in Anbar province near the Syrian border. In many of these places ISIS is basically surrounded, so its threat is diminished.
As the Iraqi Army is refitted and prepares for the next round, the coalition's air strikes have been reduced to between half and two-thirds of what they were months ago. For instance the coalition conducted only four strikes on Thursday, against ISIS units, warehouses, buildings, and tunnel entrances. Compare that to May 26, when the coalition carried out 11 strikes and 55 engagements. "That will change when Iraqis initiate the next phase of the campaign," says the general.
Croft notes that on the "macro" level, life in parts of Mosul is returning to normal. "You have evidence of schools and markets [open] and return to normal civilian life. And in West Mosul it is happening from the outside [neighborhoods] in and based on time since the battle happened." He says that the civilian flow to displaced-persons camps has reversed.
This is very much an Iraqi-led campaign; the coalition is "letting the Iraqis do the fighting and the planning," a major contrast from 10 years ago during the US-led "surge." The Americans call their strategy "by, with and through," which means the Iraqis lead the way. "They are the A-team," says Croft.
One major success of the Mosul campaign has been the emergence of a competent Iraqi Air Force. The general describes their successes using F-16s, Czech L-159s, Russian SU-25s and a large force of attack helicopters. "They identify ISIS all over Iraq and they use their aircraft for ground attack and precision strikes, and that goes on every day," says the general. "Their F-16 squadron drops laser-guided bombs and our assessment is their pilots are as good as any US squadron dropping them."
The coalition daily strike reports don't include the Iraqi Air Force, so its overall role is not easy to quantify. However, the separation allows for some flexibility on the ground when it comes to sensitive targets the coalition is wary of striking. "There may be a case where Iraq intel says there is Daesh in a mosque or school and we can't corroborate the intel and won't strike it, so they can go ahead and do it," says Croft. "So their ability to do independent intel gathering and strike ops [is a] benefit if they can do it faster than we can."
According to the coalition, the US and Iraq coordination has resulted in few if any friendly-fire incidents and has been a success story. However, the Iraqi government also includes members of the Hashd al-Shaabi or Popular Mobilization Units, a group of mostly Shia militias, many backed by Iran, that have been a key force fighting ISIS since 2014. According to Croft, the US doesn't coordinate with them, "we de-conflict, so our effort is to know where they are so we don't end up in a bad situation, we coordinate with ISF [Iraqi security forces] and obviously sometimes they are part of the ISF." He stresses, "We coordinate with ISF but not those separate organizations."
It is a challenge, particularly in places like Anbar or near Tal Afar where the Popular Mobilization Units man much of the front line and have carried out successful offensives in the last six months. "The challenge is to know where everyone is. If you are doing a strike out there [in Anbar]... it is critical knowing where everyone is, especially in places like Anbar with tough communications and [a] wide open [area]."
On August 7, a group affiliated with the PMU called the Sayyid al-Shuhada Brigade claimed coalition artillery struck it near the Iraqi border, killing dozens. Croft clarifies that this PMU unit was hit in Syria and "that attack was done by ISIS. They thought it was the coalition, [but] we weren't doing anything out there."
The incident reveals the struggle ahead as coalition forces in Iraq and Syria draw closer to other units fighting ISIS, such as Shia militias or the Syrian government forces, in a region with porous borders. The complexity ahead also reveals the problems the coalition could face in Tal Afar or Anbar where the bulk of forces Iraq has so far employed are part of the PMU, and thus officially do not coordinate with the US directly.
The campaign over the last three years since Operation Inherent Resolve was launched has been a learning experience. Croft describes many successes, such as "cherry-picking" the best capabilities of the 68 countries involved, and improving the use of precision munitions and unmanned aerial vehicles, all knit together through hi-tech networks and coordinated through joint operations rooms. Despite all that, ISIS has shown that just a few thousand men embedded among a civilian population can take months to defeat, especially when their adversaries are trying as much as possible to reduce civilian casualties and damage to civilian infrastructure.