The battle for the Iraqi city of Mosul pits Iraq's disparate and often divided collection of combat forces (backed by a U.S.-led coalition) against the genocidal fanatics of ISIS.
Mosul matters. For Iraqis, Mosul is their second most-populous city -- or was -- prior to June 2014, when ISIS seized it. The fanatics claim Mosul as the capital of their global caliphate -- at least for the moment.
Iraq's offensive to recover Mosul began in 2015, with operations to secure Tikrit and Ramadi. ISIS terrorists still plague both towns, but "the Caliphate" no longer controls them. Tikrit and Ramadi were bloody and exhausting struggles.
The specific combat operation to approach and then liberate Mosul officially began March 24.
To say the Mosul offensive has moved at a snail's pace insults snails. In an interview this week with CBS News, President Barack Obama said; "My expectation is that by the end of the year, we will have created the conditions whereby Mosul will eventually fall." That isn't a tight timetable, but Obama isn't Iraq's commander in chief.
The bloody struggle for Mosul has also become a clash of two great battle narratives, both that have the power to shape current politics and affect future history: the apocalyptic "final battle" and the "battle forging nationhood."
ISIS leaders depict every fight in apocalyptic terms, but the defense of Mosul is a priority apocalypse. A senior Kurdish security officer told Voice Of America that Mosul "will be a bloodbath...for two years they (ISIS militants) have been digging tunnels...planting IEDs, booby-traps, everything." He also said ISIS intends to use Mosul's population as "human shields." This means ISIS wants to kill en masse -- inflict apocalyptic casualties.
Throughout history, fanatical commanders have used the apocalyptic combat narratives as dramatic political and psychological tools. The looming battle is a fight over stakes so categorically precious and fundamental that negotiation, retreat or surrender are not options, militarily or morally. Their fighters must secure victory or die seeking it. Even if their deaths mean complete (apocalyptic) destruction of their forces, their display of ferocious willpower serves as an example to other fighters and recruits.
The story helps steel subordinate commitment to the cause and stiffen discipline. It may even harden souls. Proclaiming the victory-or-death commitment -- even if it is a hollow tout -- may double as psychological warfare if it deters any enemy forces reluctant to risk high casualties in close-quarter combat with zealots.
Iraqi fighting forces are reluctant forces, afflicted with low morale.
However, Iraqi political leaders see the collective opportunity Mosul offers. In June 2014, Shia Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani said Iraq must unite to defeat ISIS invaders. Liberating Mosul from ISIS genocidaires gives Iraqi Kurds, Shia and Sunni Arabs and other ethnic and religious minorities a common objective.
A single "battle forging nationhood" is a romantic notion, but creating a cooperative process to solve a shared problem isn't. The complex political and logistical process of creating, training, deploying and then employing Iraq's diverse forces to drive ISIS from Mosul is a constructive process. In fact, it is a national effort.
Iraqi officials indicate everyone will have a chance to join this national effort to liberate Mosul. Popular Mobilization Units will supplement the Iraqi Army and Kurdish peshmerga main force units. There are around 40 PMU militias, most of them Shiite, but there are also Sunni Arab, Yazidi and Arab Christian militias. Iraqi officials hope the people of Mosul will tacitly support the national effort. ISIS seems to fear civilian cooperation. In 2015, ISIS conducted at least two mass executions of suspected "spies" in the Mosul area.
Will Iraqi national unity emerge from this national effort? It could be a significant step to bridging divisions and building trust. The national effort, however, must first deal the apocalyptic fanatics a thorough and uncompromising defeat.