What are America’s strategic objectives in Mosul and beyond?

By Lt. Col. (ret) Daniel L. Davis

The battle for Mosul is all but completed, and any question about the strategic significance of the battle’s conclusion has yet to be answered by our military leaders. That being so, it is time to start asking the difficult questions, such as why the current Administration—which ran and won on the promise to change American foreign policy—continues to follow the path of its two previous predecessors in embarking on tactical combat missions that do not contribute to U.S. national security nor the accomplishment of strategic objectives?

The next tough question: Why does Washington continue expending the lives and limbs of its service members and hundreds of billions of dollars on lethal military operations that not only fail to enhance American security, but arguably diminish it?

Brig. Gen. Andrew Croft, deputy commanding general for Air, Combined Joint Forces Land Component Command, Operation Inherent Resolve, claimed that the battle to liberate Mosul would be completed “within days,” and then heaped effusive praise on the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). Their accomplishment, he boasted, “would challenge the best militaries in the world,” and that the nine-month struggle in Mosul was "like Stalingrad, but it's 10 times worse.”

Such a statement is a gross distortion of historical reality, as an estimated 1.9 million men, women, and children were killed in Stalingrad during World War II. In an interview with USA Today in March, the commander of U.S. Central Command, Gen. Joseph Votel, said less than 800 ISF troops had been killed in the fighting up to that point.  There is, however, a powerful emotional connection with the word “Stalingrad,” as most are aware that the Nazi tactical defeat there in 1943 signaled the beginning of the strategic end of Hitler’s Germany. ISIS losing Mosul, however, will not have the same strategic result.

Instead the result will likely be the end of their hold on that territory and the transition to another phase of their radical efforts. Evidence already indicates ISIS will follow the lead of al-Qaeda after we utter routed them from Afghanistan in early 2002. They simply transitioned back into a shadowy terror group and continued to launch attacks.

Gen. Croft gave some indication for what the end of the battle for Mosul is going to mean for American forces. Once the fighting is over, he explained, “we go where the Iraqis go," because, as the Military Times summarized him as saying, “the Iraqi government decides how it wants to move forward in its war against ISIS and the coalition provides support.” 

As should be painfully clear by now, there is no military solution to the scourge of ISIS.  American military actions appear to indicate that U.S. leaders believe it is possible to kill our way out of this threat —if we continue bombing terror groups, sending more forces to fight them on the ground, and training enough foreign troops, the thinking appears to go, then we’ll eventually kill enough “bad guys” to quell the threat. Such thinking goes against all we have observed over the past 16 years.

The conditions that allowed ISIS (and al Qaeda before them) to flourish still persist today. Killing legitimate enemies of the United States is a valid course of action when necessary, but even that is not a substitute for a strategy. The complex regional problem at the root of Middle Eastern violence is not something the U.S. can solve. Trying to do so has proven to be both expensive and ineffective. That’s why we aren’t “winning.” It’s not because our tactics aren’t just right or we’ve applied too little power to a given situation. We aren’t winning because we’re stubbornly using the wrong tactical instrument to solve the problem while avoiding sound strategy that might actually accomplish American objectives.

It is time to embark on a new course of action, one that jettison’s the failed policies of continuing to attack everywhere, and instead seeks to contain the violence so it does not spread to other geographic locations. We need a course of action that, seeks to diplomatically and politically reduce the reasons men join terror organizations in the first place, and strengthens homeland security to ensure they don’t harm our country and citizens. Continuing with the status quo will only ensure that after Mosul and Raqqa, there is simply a next place to fight and that the threat level continues to rise.

Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who retired in 2015 after 21 years, including four combat deployments. Follow him @DanielLDavis1

This piece was originally published by The National Interest on July 14, 2017. Read more HERE.