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In tackling the Islamic State, what are the Mosul mission’s chances for success?

At a briefing this week, a U.S. official announced plans to take back Iraq’s second biggest city, Mosul, from Islamic State fighters who captured it last June. What are the chances that the operation will succeed? Douglas Ollivant, a military planner in Iraq who served on the National Security Council joins Hari Sreenivasan from Washington D.C. with the latest.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN, PBS NEWSHOUR ANCHOR:

    At a briefing this week, a U.S. official announced plans to take back Iraq's second biggest city, Mosul, from ISIS fighters who captured it last June. What are the operations chances for success?

    For more, we are joined now from Washington by Douglas Ollivant. He was a military planner in Iraq and served on the National Security Council under both President Obama and, before that, President Bush. He is now a senior national security fellow at the New America Foundation and a partner at Mantid International. He was recently in Iraq.

    So, what are the plans to try to tackle ISIS in Mosul?

  • DOUGLAS OLLIVANT, PARTNER, MANTID INTERNATIONAL:

    Well, according to this briefing, which we can back to in a minute, evidently a number of reporters got on background, the plan is to seven six or seven Iraqi brigades forward, along with the counterterrorism brigade, along with some tribal forces and have the Kurds essentially isolated, keep anyone from either fleeing the city or reinforcing it from the north.

    According to this briefing, or the report from this briefing, they believe there are only 1,000 to 2,000 Islamic State fighters in the industry, and, therefore, this force of about 10,000 to 20,000, depending on how you count, should have a really chance of pushing them out. And they're talking about perhaps doing this as article as late spring, April, May.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    OK. And considering that there were all those details that even we are talking about, there's been push-backs of from Senator McCain and Senator Graham, saying we just telegraphed our plans to the enemy.

  • DOUGLAS OLLIVANT:

    That's right. There's a lot of interesting dispute why did this happen? Why was CentCom talk about it? Why are the Iraqis not talking about it rather than the Americans?

    Senator Graham and Senator McCain are clearly are clearly little bit upset about tipping our hand. And there's a lot of bafflement in the national security establishment. You know, was this some military officer freelancing? Did the White House want this to happen? Just exactly how and why did this happen or is this part of some grand information plan? "The Washington Post" is reporting to downgrade the moral of the fighters in Mosul and you will try to make it less of a spectacular battle than it might otherwise be.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    But how difficult is it to fight with 10,000 to 20,000 people against a population of 1,000 or 2,000 in a large city, or a city that of maybe a million, 2 million people?

  • DOUGLAS OLLIVANT:

    It could be very difficult. And here's the issue with the battle of Mosul that's going to come. It could be so very, very different. You know, again, "The Washington Post" story says we want it to be more like the liberation of Paris than like Stalingrad. And that is a distinct possibility.

    Again, if there's only 1,000 or 2,000 Islamic state fighters in Mosul and a population of one million, it's entirely possible that as the Iraqi forces close, that there could be a lot of guerillas inside the city who assassinate key leaders, who break down defenses, who destroy their supplies and that, therefore, the battle of Mosul is less a bang and a whimper.

    On the other hand, it could look like Stalingrad and it could look like anything in between. And so, it's just very difficult ton exactly how this battle will unfold.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So, does this create an incentive for the different ISIL factions in the region to band together and defend Mosul, or possibly for these people, these 1,000 to 2,000, to say, "Here's my ticket out, let me go now to ISIL in Syria"?

  • DOUGLAS OLLIVANT:

    That's great question. That's the problem with war, it's multi-variant and things can go either way. So, you can see either of those outcomes happening. This could work in the sense of making the fighters in Mosul, particularly as they are becoming more isolated. The Kurds are putting in this perimeter around the north and northwest of Mosul, starting to cut them off from Syria and making them more isolated. And they may start to feel that and decide it's better to live and fight another day someplace else.

    On the other hand, it could go the opposite way and they could dig in and decide to fight. We just don't know. That's the problem before.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So, do we have greater confidence now in the Iraqi forces that they're up to this task?

  • DOUGLAS OLLIVANT:

    We seem to. It seems that there are more reliable units that have been pushed up from the south that are getting extra training from the American trainers who have been in country for about six months now and that there is a level of confidence that these forces may be ready to do the type of hard, in-the-city fighting that's required.

    Now, of course, there are doubters. There are people who would say that's not case. But I think mainstream opinion is that they're going to be ready.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right. Douglas Ollivant, thanks so much.

  • DOUGLAS OLLIVANT:

    Thank you.

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