In December 2001, US forces had Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden cornered in Tora Bora, a rugged cave complex in eastern Afghanistan not far from the Pakistani border. Rather than tighten the noose with US forces, however, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld put Afghan tribal forces first. Despite what their leaders told US forces, they had their own agenda and allowed Bin Laden to escape. It would be nearly another decade, a couple thousand casualties, and tens of billions of dollars, before US forces finally caught up with Bin Laden.
Fast forward nearly 15 years: US forces, the Iraqi army, Shi'ite militias, and Kurdish peshmerga are closing in on Mosul. The coalition has so far rejected Turkish army participation, something that infuriates Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. "It is impossible for us to stay out of it because there lies history for us," Erdoğan declared.
Let us hope that President Barack Obama, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, and Secretary of State John Kerry remain firm. To allow Turkish forces into Mosul would be a disaster for two reasons.
"It is impossible for us to stay out of it because there lies history for us," Erdoğan declared.
Firstly, Erdoğan has long played a double game with regard with regard to the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh). While he and Turkish diplomats have condemned the Islamic State to fellow world leaders and diplomats, the evidence is overwhelming that Erdoğan's government has supplied and supported the Islamic State and other radical groups like Jebhat al-Nusra. To allow Turkish forces to participate in liberating Mosul from the Islamic State will be to make the Tora Bora mistake all over again. Turkish troops won't target the Islamic State; they will help key leaders escape.
Second, Erdoğan has increasingly voiced irredentist claims. Turkish journalist Ilhan Tanir notes that in recent days, Islamist papers reflecting Erdoğan's line have published maps like this, depicting Turkey extending into northern Iraq and annexing not only Mosul, but also Erbil and Kirkuk while pro-Erdoğan commentators circulate this. Simply put, it will be a lot harder getting Turkish forces to leave Mosul than enter it.
For Obama and Kerry, diplomatic expediency and wishful thinking often trump reality and recognition of long-term consequences. Let us hope that they hold firm on the exclusion of Turkey from the Mosul campaign. To do otherwise will be to sow the seeds of conflict for years to come.