Defeating IS in Tal Afar: An empty victory?
Government forces were well placed to understand the significance of Tal Afar, given that Major-General Najim Al-Jubouri, commander of the Iraqi Army in Nineveh province served as the city's mayor between 2005 and 2008.
His cooperation with US forces, notably General HR McMaster, now Donald Trump's National Security Advisor during these years, was often held up as one of the few examples of a successfully calmed insurgency. But it appears local knowledge was not enough to stop Iraqi Security Forces miscalculating the situation inside the city.
Tal Afar, formerly home to some 200,000 was billed as IS' final stronghold in Iraq. But in stark contrast to the gruelling nine-month battle waged over Mosul some 60km east, IS presence in the city has capitulated and Tal Afar has been almost completely recaptured after barely eight days of fighting.
"The enemy's back is broken," Lt. Gen. Sami al-Aridhi, of the elite counter terrorism unit the told The Washington Post, but is this a result of the brute strength of Iraqi forces? Unlikely, rather Tal Afar appears to have been a far less significant fight than many had predicted on account of smarter strategy and overestimates of IS' strength.
Early on Monday, counterterrorism forces claimed to have killed 225 IS fighters, though the Iraqi Joint Operations Command put the figure at 302. While there are still clashes in the Ayadiyah district some 12 kilometres north of the town, the battle for Tal Afar is largely over.
|The city, formerly home to some 200,000 was billed as IS' final stronghold in Iraq|
It's evident that the figure is unlikely to rise close to the 2,000 number claimed prior to the operation.
Unlike in Mosul, IS appear to have somewhat abandoned Tal Afar as the fighting ensued. Sources on the ground told The New Arab that as the operation began, at least 15 cars had fled north in a caravan to Ayadiyah. The Kurdish Peshmerga who hold ground to the north and north-west of Tal Afar claimed to have killed 130 IS fighters attempting to make it to Syria in the past few days.
This appears to be at least in part a result of differing tactics to those used in Mosul. In Mosul, as the Iraqi government forces tightened the noose, Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi gave the order to stop IS fighters fleeing the city westwards to Syria or elsewhere - an order that amounted to "kill them all".
This decision led to a brutal siege in Mosul's Old City, with much of the city's west being levelled by Iraqi and coalition airpower - it was the civilians still present in the city who suffered most from this. In all likelihood, the true civilian death toll from the battle for Mosul will never be known.
In contrast, when it came to moving on Tal Afar, the army's 16th division intentionally left a corridor open to the north and as a result it was far less of a battle to the death than had been seen in Mosul.
|When it came to moving on Tal Afar, the army's 16th division intentionally left a corridor open to the north|
The same strategy was used in Fallujah; an open corridor saw IS largely flee after a few weeks of sharp resistance. Whether in Tal Afar, or Fallujah the strategy has helped avoid the large numbers of civilian casualties and widespread destruction of homes and infrastructure that has come to define the final few months of fighting in west Mosul.
Also in contrast to the operation to take back Mosul was the decision to advance on Tal Afar on multiple axes. Whilst the initial stages of Mosul saw advances on only one axis, on the main highway from east to west through the suburb of Gogjali, in Tal Afar IS were pressed from three directions simultaneously.
IS has had as long as two years to prepare defence for a battle they knew was going to come, Tal Afar was no different. Advancing on multiple fronts saw the defences overwhelmed and largely left obsolete - this is an important take away for any future urban battle against the group.
It was not only IS' strength in Tal Afar that was overestimated, the number of civilians within the city appears to have fallen well short of estimates, with one counterterrorism commander claiming he hadn't seen a single civilian during the operation.
Despite this, humanitarian agencies continue to insist there are tens of thousands of civilians waiting to flee outlying parts of Tal Afar district.
|This humanitarian situation stands in stark contrast to Mosul, where hundreds of thousands of civilians could be seen attempting to carry on with life in extremely close proximity to the fighting|
This humanitarian situation stands in stark contrast to Mosul, where hundreds of thousands of civilians could be seen attempting to carry on with life in extremely close proximity to the fighting.
Reports from the ground indicate that many of the houses in Tal Afar had been converted into weapons factories and ammunition stores, in fact suggest that relatively little of the city had actually recently been inhabited.
As The Washington Post reported "dusty Tal Afar did not appear to be much more than a military outpost for the group".
Officials also believed that Tal Afar was home to several hundred Yazidi women held as sex slaves by the jihadists, and some within the Yazidi community saw the battle for Tal Afar as a test of the government's willingness and ability to protect the beleaguered minority.
But just a handful of women have been found in the city so far, and the whereabouts of the hundreds of others remains unknown.
Allowing the jihadists to flee or withdraw from certain areas is a tactic not only the Iraqis have made use of. Just this week the Syrian regime went one step further and bussed several hundred IS fighters hundreds of miles, from Qalamoun to Deir az-Zour.
As the group are pushed back in Syria and in their few remaining pockets in Iraq, this tactic will become less and less viable. The question also remains as to exactly where the fighters are fleeing to; are they laying down their weapons or merely biding their time?
Gareth Browne is a freelance reporter based in Erbil. He has been reporting from the front lines in the battle to retake Mosul from the Islamic State group and recently visited Baghdad to study the legacy of the US-led invasion.
Follow him on Twitter: @BrowneGareth
Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.