After the George W. Bush White House suffered years of recriminations for not preparing more robustly to secure Iraq and Afghanistan following initially successful invasions, the Obama administration now risks fielding similar criticism for its campaign to retake the second-largest city in Iraq. But US officials are defending their lack of a completed plan by saying the task is so complicated it would have indefinitely delayed the campaign to kick out the terror group.
The US on Thursday reported that Iraqi troops, backed by US airpower and Special Forces, had stormed toward Mosul with unexpected speed. While that success is welcome, it is intensifying concerns that the US and its partners have not adequately prepared for the biggest challenge yet to come: finding a way to keep the peace in the city after two years of ISIS domination.
The battle is expected to lead to a major refugee exodus, a possible ISIS insurgency should fighters opt to blend in with the local population rather than flee or fight to the death, and power struggles among Mosul's diverse ethnic, tribal and religious groups.
Some Western diplomats have privately voiced to CNN concern that not enough planning had been done in the run-up to the assault, even when it wasn't ahead of schedule.
Lessons of Iraq learned?
In conversations with CNN, they questioned whether the US had learned the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan, where critics inside and outside of the Obama administration slammed President George W. Bush for lacking a post-invasion stabilization plan and not ensuring that the countries' new governments were inclusive.
Obama administration officials acknowledge that the day-after plan for Mosul was still very much a work in progress when the first shots were fired just over two weeks ago. And there is no agreement to date on who should control Mosul once ISIS is kicked out.
"Everybody has a different idea for how Nineveh Province should be governed, who should be the governor," said Brett McGurk, the US special presidential envoy for the counter-ISIS fight, referring to the region that Mosul is part of. "Every other person you meet will say, I should be the governor, he should be the governor."
"The problem here is that if you try to resolve all of those issues, Daesh will remain in Mosul for the foreseeable future and perhaps forever," he added, using the Arabic term for the terror group. "This is really a war of momentum. We feel the momentum is on the side of the Iraqi security forces."
On Thursday, McGurk tweeted that the operation was ahead of schedule.
Nick Heras, a Middle East analyst at the Center for a New American Security, described the governing situation in Mosul is "incredibly complex."
There are two main factions vying for the lead role in the post-ISIS running of the city, he noted.
Baghdad's plan is to have the central government's designated governor of Nineveh Province take charge of the governance and policing efforts.
But Turkey and the Kurdistan Regional Government, which runs an autonomous zone near Mosul in northern Iraq, have their own preferred man, Atheel al-Nujaifi, the former governor, who seeks to divide the province into semi-autonomous sub-districts, a plan favored by minority groups like the Kurds.
About 1,000 Turkish troops are in northern Iraq helping to train a Sunni tribal police force to help stabilize Mosul, deployment that has irked the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad. Turkey has also demanded a greater role
in the Mosul campaign, with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan saying that his country's historical role in the area during the Ottoman Empire gives Ankara the right to have influence in the region.
Heras said that many of Mosul's Sunni residents view the Shiite-led government in Baghdad with suspicion, especially because of its use of Shiite militias, known as Popular Mobilization Forces, in the fight against ISIS. Many of these militias are aligned with Iran.
Humanitarian organization have accused these forces of human rights violations.
Assurances from the central government in Baghdad that only local forces will be used to secure Mosul have not dampened those suspicions. Kurdish and Turkish officials are also skeptical that government forces alone are capable of securing the city.
Another complicating factor is the Iraqi government's inability to eject the Turkish military or compel the Kurdish Regional Government by force of arms, forcing Baghdad to rely on the US as a mediator.
US could be caught as referee
"The US will be caught trying to play referee" between the competing groups, Heras predicted.
McGurk acknowledged the challenge of trying to accommodate the various factions but said that effort must begin in earnest only once ISIS is no longer holding the city -- an assessment shared by several current and former diplomats and military officials who spoke to CNN.
Diplomats are pushing the Iraqis to set up an interim governing council, similar to the one created after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2002, comprising Iraq's various ethnic groups, tribes, religious sects and sectors of society.
"There will be an important role for all the notables of Mosul, but the assessment from the Iraqis, which I very much agree with, is that it would be impossible to resolve all of these very difficult issues while Daesh is sitting in Mosul," McGurk said.
James Jeffrey, the former American ambassador to Iraq during the Obama administration, agreed with the current US approach.
The US and its allies "couldn't afford to wait for the governance plan to be fully in place," he said, but "had to take on ISIS as soon as possible." He added that the most immediate issue -- providing humanitarian assistance to refugees and internally displaced persons -- had been adequately planned for.
International relief agencies have estimated that as many as one million Iraqis could be displaced by the fight.
While he acknowledged that Turkey and the Kurds were seeking to exert influence on Mosul, Jeffrey said that he was confident a governing plan could be negotiated between the various factions.
"I've never seen cooperation between Baghdad and Irbil as good as it is right now," he said, referring to the capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government. He said that this collaboration has been on display during the battle for Mosul and that its continuation would be critical given the large number of Kurds in east Mosul.
Local police recruits could help
Jeffrey added that unlike 2014 when Mosul fell, Baghdad is now putting a much bigger emphasis on recruiting and training local forces for policing.
US Military officials have repeatedly said that they are making a concerted effort to train local security forces to help stabilize Mosul and ward off any ISIS insurgents, even as governing issues remaining in flux.
"We've trained a very large number of security police forces because these are going to be key to establishing a degree of stability in the areas that get liberated from Daesh," US Air Force Col. John Dorrian told reporters last week.
"Daesh won't be allowed to simply melt away and then do terrorist attacks or sort of (insurgency) ops. The police will be in these areas and assisting with that challenge," he said.
Asked if there was a post-conflict plan ready for Mosul, Dorrian said, "There is a plan in place, but it's an adaptive plan ... they continue to work on this."
He added, "I think what we have to do is get Mosul cleared of Daesh, and once we do that, we'll see where those remaining elements are."