A few weeks ago I watched the movie Mosul (2019) on Netflix—a fictionalized account of a real-life Iraqi SWAT team that fought against Daesh (ISIS) from the fall of Mosul in 2014 through to the liberation of the city in 2017. It’s an excellent, gritty movie. Filmed entirely in Arabic, it places the Iraqi security forces at the centre of the story: US and coalition support is only mentioned a few times and one Iranian military advisor makes a brief (and memorable) appearance. Indeed, during the actual campaign in Iraq and Syria, 99.5% of those who fought and died against Daesh were Arabs and Kurds.
Not surprisingly, the movie often comes to mind as I’ve been playtesting the optional solitaire rules for We Are Coming, Nineveh! As regular readers of PAXsims will know, WACN is a tactical/operational game of the liberation of West Mosul. It was first developed by two students in my conflict simulation class, Juliette Le Ménahèze and Harrison Brewer. I later joined them as a codesigner, as did Brian Train. While things have been slowed by the pandemic, Nuts! Publishingplan to release it by the end of this year. You’ll find previous reports on the project here and here.
Normally, WACN is a two player game. In the solitaire version, the player assumes control of Iraqi forces against an automated Daesh defender. First, the ISF player decides what additional assets and capabilities they will bring to the battle. The initial deployment of Daesh forces is then randomized, but in a way that reflects the group’s major tactical priorities: a last-ditch defence of the densely-built Old City, with enough units and IEDs elsewhere to preclude rapid encirclement, complicate ISF planning, and promise some difficult fights and tactical surprises. The use of blocks and rumours (dummy counters) means that the ISF player is rarely sure of the enemy’s exact dispositions.
Thereafter, game play alternates, with Daesh actions controlled by a deck of “military council” cards. These usually direct two or three sets of Daesh action each turn, from ambushes and counterattacks, through to indirect fire, quadcopter (drone) attacks, snipers, tunnels, human shields, and so forth. Some of these depend on Daesh’s supply situation, and others seek to identify weak spots in the ISF lines.
For the ISF, it is essential to cut off external supply routes into the Old City and destroy key assets (such as leadership, arms aches, and IED factories). Coalition ISR (intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance assets) and precision fires can be very helpful indeed if used carefully. But so too are things like training, improved logistics, casualty evacuation, explosive ordinance disposal, and old-fashioned human intelligence (HUMINT). Indeed, while the battle for Mosul had some key high-tech elements, most of the gruelling, house-to-house fighting would have been familiar to veterans of Stalingrad, Seoul, or Huế—a point that the movie brings out well.
Details from yesterday’s game can be seen below. (Note that this is my rather heavily-used playtesting copy, and not representative of the artwork that will appear in the published version.) The ISF has secured coalition air, artillery, and UAV support, augmented its logistics capabilities, and deployed some Popular Mobilization Forces in addition to the Iraqi Army, police, and Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS).
Military Council cards determined what Daesh did each turn. The initial advance went well, with some Daesh forces brushed aside quickly.
However, Daesh had a few surprises up its sleeve—on top of the challenges of conducting military operations in a major city. Below, veteran Daesh defenders emerge from a hidden tunnel to attack Iraqi police in a rear area.
Things began to bog down. The Iraqi Army severed the enemy’s supply lines, only to see them reestablished for another month after a Daesh counterattack.
Most of the fighting in the Old City was conducted by forces from the elite CTS “Golden Division.” However, one memorable scene from Mosul was replayed as an Iraqi police SWAT team and Iranian-advised PMF forces found themselves together—possibly trading cigarettes for ammunition, as in the movie.
The fighting here was gruelling, with some CTS units suffering over 70% casualties (as they did in real life). The local Daesh commander was ultimately cornered just north of the al-Nuri mosque, but precious weeks were lost taking these final positions.
The collateral damage from the fighting was also heavier than expected. When points were tallied at the end of the game, Daesh had lost control of the city but won a political victory.