Less than an hour south of the most intense urban combat seen in all of the Global War on Terror is a squadron of American paratroopers, quietly working alongside the Iraqi Federal Police and offering advice, guidance, and when necessary, American firepower.
LTC John Hawbaker, commander for 1st Squadron, 73rd Cavalry Regiment, part of 2nd Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division says his experience working with the Iraqi Federal Police is a dramatic departure from his last time in Iraq. “Unlike in the past where I’ve helped Iraqi forces, 12 years ago, it’s night and day. They are a professional service, they are in charge, they have their own systems, and own methods – we just assist where we can.” He says.
Now jointly stationed with an Iraqi Federal Police Corps-level headquarters at Hamam al-Alil, Hawbaker and his subordinate commanders closely monitor the brutal fighting occurring just north of their position, where the Iraqi Security Forces are locked in deadly street fighting. It has come to be known as the Battle of Mosul, a fight that has no modern equivalent in its combination of 21st century technology and bloody trench warfare.
“In the Old City of Mosul, it’s a three-dimensional maze, there aren’t really streets. Its 2 kilometers by 2 kilometers of thousand-year-old buildings that have sunk down, with other buildings built on top of them, so you have these networks of tunnels and alleyways,” where the fighting is taking place.
“Even people that are born there can get lost.”
To further complicate the task of clearing Mosul block by block, something the Iraqis are doing on their own, civilians are packed tightly into practically every building and space. In an effort to use precision fires, largely provided by Hawbaker and his staff along with other coalition forces, the Iraqis also degrade their operational tempo; it’s a balancing act.
“If you go too fast, you increase the likelihood of civilian casualties, but if you go too slow, you increase the amount of human suffering by leaving them under the control of a barbaric organization like ISIS. It’s all about balancing the tempo to minimize suffering.”
The Battle of Mosul has been slogging on for seven long months, due in large part to the dense urban terrain the Iraqi Security Forces have had to contend with. ISIS has intentionally used structures that Iraqi and U.S. forces know house civilians in a bid to incur collateral damage they know the American military cannot tolerate. However, some Iraqi military sources have said confidently that the operation could be wrapped up soon, even mere days from now. However soon the Iraqis are able to dislodge the Islamic State from their hideouts throughout Mosul, it will continue to be done more or less independently.
For Hawbaker and his paratroopers, despite taking pride in an important mission, it remains one that the Iraqis must execute themselves.
“The single metric of mission accomplishment for my brigade and squadron is the success of the Iraqi Security Forces with whom we’re partnered. For the Federal Police to accomplish their mission with the least cost to themselves – that is my goal.”
But despite the considerable advantages gained from American precision firepower, challenges remain. The Iraqis have taken thousands of casualties as they negotiate a battlefield fraught with danger. Acknowledging that, they remain optimistic toward their peers within the Iraqi Security Forces. One wonders what could have changed so dramatically within the Iraqi Security Forces to go from being completely routed by ISIS in 2014, to putting an army in the field that is capable of executing an operation with such a daunting level of complexity. At the ground level, the major change is leadership.
“It’s having the right leaders in charge of the right elements within the Federal Police, and the security forces at large.”
“Having the right leadership is key – there are leaders in place whose primary drive is for the country of Iraq, not for any other purpose. That’s the biggest change since 2005-2006 when I was here last.”
The Iraqi security forces have faced criticisms of exclusionary practices on behalf of the Shia majority within the government and military. Many Sunni Iraqis have felt that the military was not looking out for their interests at best, and an outright hostile entity towards their people at worst.
“There are lot competing purposes throughout the security forces, I’m not saying they’re not still present, just saying the people in charge are motivated by patriotism,” Hawbaker says.
“It might sound a little corny, but that’s really what drives them. They take a lot of personal risk to root out sectarianism and other things like that in their formations. By them doing that, they have improved the force.”
With the Battle of Mosul appearing to be close to an end, LTC Hawbaker contends that the lessons learned and knowledge gleaned from this battle will come to shape the U.S. Army of the future.
“I think the Battle of Mosul will be studied as one of the first Mega City conflicts,”—a reference to a term Army leaders have used to describe future combat as becoming increasingly urbanized as populations continue to explode in ever increasingly dense urban centers— “and could drive a lot of doctrinal and materiel changes across not only the U.S. Army, but the world.”
When I asked if his Soldiers are having a good time?
“They are proud to be here, certainly.”
Featured Image courtesy of the Department of Defense