Why Trump’s plan for Mosul would be disastrous for refugees

Women who recently fled the Islamic State's stronghold on the outskirts of Mosul queue to receive food at the school at Debaga camp, on the outskirts of Erbil, Iraq October 28, 2016. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani - RTX2QV62

At the third and final presidential debate last week, Donald Trump had this to say about the Iraqi-led operation to free Mosul from two years under the rule of the Islamic State:

Whatever happened to the element of surprise, okay? We announce we’re going after Mosul. I have been reading about going after Mosul now for about — how long is it, Hillary, three months? —a rhetorical question, intended to trap her into conceding that the administration bungled.

It’s a concern he raised again last weekend:

It’s one that misses the point. Surprise is not necessary for a battlefield victory, which after months of careful planning, is almost certainly assured. It also would not actually have been possible to achieve, a number of analysts have pointed out, given the nature of the task.

While surprise is often desirable, it’s not always a primary objective. A successful operation hinges on getting its aftermath right. For that reason, there is a sound logic behind foreshadowing a campaign. Doing so allows aid workers to develop an emergency response plan and alerts civilians to coming danger.

That’s worth remembering now that the United States and its allies are laying the groundwork for an offensive in Raqqa, the Islamic State’s de-facto capital in Syria. On Wednesday, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said that operation will begin “in the next few weeks”—in other words, before the end of the Mosul campaign.

To the extent that it can dampen the pressures of desperation that have been shown to exacerbate communal tensions, managing the humanitarian consequences of the military campaign is a priority. With that in mind, it’s worth considering what—short of resurrecting the element of surprise—military and civilian leadership should bear in mind as it charts a forward course.

What lies ahead?

Since the start of the Mosul operation, more than 10,500 people have fled the violence. According to U.N. estimates, that number could reach as high as 200,000 within a few weeks, and one million by the time the fighting ends. That will put enormous strain on a system of aid delivery that is already stretched thin by more than five years of violence—a system that has struggled to address the needs of more than 10 million Iraqis who already require some form of assistance.

Those who manage to escape from Mosul do so at great risk—crossing conflict lines along hazardous roads seeded with landmines and other explosives. Those who stay behind are in danger of getting caught in the crossfire, even use as human shields.

Aid organizations have raised concerns that civilians may be prevented from reaching safety, either by Islamic State militants or by checkpoints, where men of fighting age will be screened. Checkpoints are necessary to ensure that armed elements do not escape among ordinary families, but can delay swift access to protection.

Then of course, there are the risks of family separation, spikes in gender-based violence, and poor sanitary conditions at overcrowded camps. In short, a humanitarian disaster looms.

What’s at stake?

An extensive body of evidence suggests that fear of and exposure to violence can exacerbate communal tensions, decrease support for political compromise, intensify intolerance, and raise levels of support for violence and discriminatory policies. None of these outcomes would bode well for Iraq’s future. Getting the humanitarian response right is therefore not just the humane thing to do, it is a political and security imperative.

What has been done to prepare?

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees developed a response plan to address the crisis, which includes the construction of emergency sites, as well as 11 formal camps, at a cost of $196.2 million to implement. Despite the attention paid to resource gaps when world leaders met at the U.N. General Assembly last month, these needs are less than half-funded.

That, as well as other pressures, has limited what humanitarian actors have been able to accomplish, despite the lead time a forewarning of the operation afforded. At the start of the fighting, camps and emergency sites were prepared to accommodate 60,000 people. That falls far short of the scale of need.

What more can be done?

The United States and its allies can do more to ensure that emergency response plan is fully funded. Without resources, stretched aid organizations will not be able to provide the services essential for safe sanctuary.

The international community can also do more to ensure safe routes out of the city are a priority. Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has offered assurances that such routes have been secured, and in recent days, Iraqi special forces have moved more than 1,000 civilians from the front lines. But the U.N.’s special rapporteur for internally displaced people has voiced concern that present arrangements are not adequate. They should be the subject of renewed attention.

Part of that effort should entail a focus on screening procedures at security checkpoints along exit routes. Those should be transparent and consistent to the maximum extent possible. Screenings should be carried out by trained Iraqi soldiers, and humanitarian actors should have access to screening sites. During operations in Anbar earlier this year, security and detention procedures were often unclear and unpredictable—that can feed perceptions of discrimination and should not be repeated.

Bottom line

Rooting out ISIS is a critical element of the difficult and often frustrating project of bringing stability back to a volatile region. But the operation, essential as it is, will almost certainly cause new disruptions in the short term—most notably, a humanitarian crisis that will only compound the one that the international community has been struggling to manage for some time.

Addressing the crisis requires concerted action on the part of the international community, as well as Iraqis themselves. That is key to the long term success of the campaign, and it cannot be accomplished without coordination and planning—in other words, by surprise.  As combat draws closer to population centers, the numbers of displaced will only climb. Providing for their exit in safety and dignity must be a priority. It is the right thing to do, and it will pay dividends.