Mosul, 2016

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The Hell of Urban Warfare Is Not Unique to Gaza

During the campaign against ISIS in Mosul, the U.S. flattened a large city with far less provocation—while observing all the rules of modern war

Bradley Brincka
October 19, 2023
Mosul, 2016

Rise Images/Alamy Stock Photo

This article is part of Hamas’ War on Israel.
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In the coming days, Israel may launch a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip in response to the shocking pogrom carried out against Israelis on Oct. 7. The looming operation has led many to search for precedents in military history. There is one recent urban conflagration with great relevance to the impending assault on Gaza that, though unlikely to provide comfort to anyone, may offer some historical grounding. That is the U.S.-backed Iraqi campaign to liberate Mosul from the Islamic State in 2016-17.

I was a minor participant in this titanic affair, serving as a volunteer ambulance driver with the Free Burma Rangers, a humanitarian medical group then embedded with the Iraqi Army. From January to June 2017, I accompanied Iraq’s 9th Armored Division as it slowly encircled Mosul from the west before finally throwing all of its American- and Soviet-made tanks into the dense concrete jungle along the Tigris river at the battle’s climax that spring. It was a formative experience as a younger man, and one that taught me the brutal nature of urban combat first hand.

Three years earlier, the Islamic State had exploded onto the world stage after routing the same Iraqi Army in Mosul, conquering the country’s second-largest city with ease over the course of five days, as the American trained Iraqi Army largely collapsed or fled. On June 29, 2014, the group’s secretive leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, proclaimed his caliphate. A short time later, his legions invaded the neighboring district of Sinjar, subjecting its Yazidi inhabitants to a genocide, exterminating whole villages, impressing over 6,000 women and children into sexual concubinage, and boasting of the reimposition of chattel slavery in their glossy English-language magazine. In the months that followed, a notorious troop of British national ISIS members who came to be known as “The Beatles” beheaded Western hostages and threatened future attacks. These viral videos, combined with images of Yazidi women carried off to the caliphate’s slave markets, had the effect of decisively galvanizing American public opinion in favor of military intervention.

Rather than sending its own troops back into Iraq, the war-weary U.S. would seek to win “by, with, and through” its local proxies while “leading from behind.” In practice this meant funding, equipping, and providing U.S. air support to Iranian-backed Shia militia groups—the same groups that had previously carried out attacks on U.S. soldiers—which formed the backbone of Iraq’s new Popular Mobilization Forces. At the same time, small groups of U.S. special operations soldiers began training elite Iraqi commando units in anticipation of an eventual push to drive ISIS out of Mosul. The approach meant that Iraqi and Kurdish forces would do all the fighting and dying while the U.S. provided logistical, intelligence, and—most crucially—air support. It was a strategy that would prove to be devastatingly effective.

For the next five years, the American-led coalition pursued a nearly continuous bombing campaign in conjunction with partner ground operations. Spanning two administrations, the campaign resulted in the leveling of multiple major cities across Iraq and Syria, killing tens of thousands, and displacing hundreds of thousands more. At no point during that time was the efficacy or morality of this policy meaningfully discussed within the body politic. If anything, candidates for public office vied to outdo one another regarding who would be tougher against the terror group, with presidential candidate Donald Trump suggesting, “You have to take out their families when you get these terrorists. They care about their lives, don’t kid yourself.”

Meanwhile, the Islamic State, while pushed back in other parts of Iraq, had time to fortify defenses in the urban strongholds under its control. The caliphate’s eschatological ambitions collided with the coalition’s determination to uproot it as the two raced toward an inescapable trajectory: the annihilation of cities like Manbij, Mosul, and Raqqa.

Before its sacking in 2014, the great riverine metropolis of Mosul boasted an estimated 2 million residents. By 2016, as many as 12,000 hardened ISIS defenders confronted a patchwork of 100,000 Iraqi soldiers, police, and the elite Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS). The Iraqis were better armed, better trained, and better led than before, and they were now backed by stupefying American air power. The battle commenced on Oct. 16, 2016. What had taken the Islamic State less than a week to achieve in 2014 would take 252 days of savage fighting to undo.

Owing to the character of urban combat, the Iraqi soldiers tasked with ridding Mosul of ISIS faced all manner of harrowing tactical and moral dilemmas. They confronted an entrenched opponent with two years to prepare for a siege shielded by noncombatants (Hamas by comparison has ruled Gaza since 2007). Drones—rudimentary novelties on the battlefield then, years before their proliferation in Eastern Europe—appeared from nowhere in liberated areas, instilling panic among soldiers and civilians alike because of the lethal ordnance they frequently dropped. Heavily armored “suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices” (SVBIEDs) drove out of garages and detonated behind passing Iraqi columns. An invisible dimension of subterranean tunnels—Gaza has its own cement reinforced tunnel system built by Hamas—enabled Islamic State fighters to spring from the earth and cause mayhem. Mechanized Iraqi soldiers, in keeping with the cavalryman’s maxim of “Death Before Dismount,” demurred from chasing ghosts into these labyrinths, preferring instead to collapse the tunnels and entomb their foes.

The heroism of the Iraqi soldiers who fought in Mosul cannot obscure the startling cost of liberation: some 8,200 dead Iraqi servicemen (a whopping 60% casualty rate among the elite CTS), an estimated 10,000 civilians killed (though likely much higher) of which 3,200 are thought to have perished in coalition airstrikes, and the destruction of 40,000 homes in west Mosul alone. Notwithstanding the occasional media criticisms of especially deadly strikes, there were no popular protests in Western or Arab capitals to speak of and certainly nothing akin to the tens of thousands marching in the streets the past week over Gaza. Back then, the climactic showdown between Iraq and the Islamic State was just another quarrel in a faraway country, between people of whom most were content to know nothing.

Even the most ‘humane’ application of force in full accordance with the Law of Armed Conflict in a densely populated city results in shocking death and destruction.

The apocalyptic destruction visited on Mosul might lead some to conclude the coalition pursued an indiscriminate bombing campaign to rid the city of its occupiers, but that was not the case at all. U.S. targeting procedures are heavily regimented and bureaucratized with lawyers involved at every step. The banal process of determining whether a building and its occupants are to be vaporized more closely resembles a quarterly HOA board meeting than the ravings of Dr. Strangelove.

It is a point worth emphasizing: Even the most “humane” application of force in full accordance with the Law of Armed Conflict in a densely populated city results in shocking death and destruction far in excess of what most would consider “proportionate.” To innocents on the business end of such strikes, this jargon would appear as mere ritualistic ablutions or voodoo; the obfuscation of an enterprise which—when stripped to its essence—is the imprecise incineration of one’s foes by means of mechanical dragons. Abstractions like “surgical precision” and “harm reduction” are cold comfort to one whose home has been flattened or family line eliminated.

That said, neither Iraq nor the coalition ever seriously countenanced the idea of leaving Mosul in the hands of the Islamic State. The threat was perceived as existential and the preceding years’ outrages and sadism had to be avenged. Mosul’s fate was decided long before Iraqi troops approached its outskirts in 2016. The brutal logic of destroying the city to save it had long since been internalized. The prospect of human sacrifice appeared less horrifying only when compared with the implications of forgoing the sacrifice. To not administer the purging fire would be for the slave markets to continue humming, for the captives to languish, for millions of souls to remain under the boot of a death-worshiping cult, and for the caliphate’s hordes to flood out of the desert once more. To the extent there was any choice, it was not between the high and the low but between the terrible and the unthinkable. Such is the dilemma of confronting a foe ensconced in a city among a population.

This brings the discussion at last to Gaza. The horrors inflicted on southern Israel by Hamas last week represent a casus belli of a magnitude that dwarfs the comparably trivial one that spurred Americans to shrug at killing a new state in its infancy and leveling whole metropolises on the other side of the world. The knifing of Jewish mothers and the unborn, the slaughter, the pyres of children, and outrages against women carried off as war booty to the attackers’ lairs, are hauntingly evocative of the genocidal campaign against the Yazidis in 2014.

I write with no glee or triumphalism that the momentum of events points toward an ominous and seemingly inexorable trajectory: that Gaza is doomed, that the city will be destroyed, and that its population will soon share the people of Mosul’s fate. Human nature being what it is, any Israeli government unwilling or too squeamish to carry this out would almost certainly be replaced by one with no such compunctions, or find itself vanquished by other means. No technological sorcery will enable Israel to extirpate Hamas in a way that would leave civilians unscathed or satisfy those for whom the horrors of urban warfare and siege are problems ameliorable through ever more effective technocratic management.

Alas, Mosul still stands today, but it is no longer the city it once was nor shall it ever be again. Its shattered visage lies half-sunk in the sands of northern Iraq. It is Ozymandias-like, a colossal wreck, boundless and bare. It is a testament to the wages of madness, hubris, and human sacrifice, and a harbinger of what is to come.

Bradley Brincka is a writer, ethnographer, and former member of the Free Burma Rangers. He lives in northern Virginia with his family.