Grande's lesson from Mosul: Engage with military for civilian protection

Lise Grande, U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Iraq. Photo by: Isaac Billy / United Nations

NEW YORK — Military operations to liberate the Iraqi city of Mosul offer a model for how humanitarians can engage with military forces to prioritize civilian protection in conflict, Lise Grande, U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Iraq, told Devex.

Islamic State militants were largely cleared from Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, in July, after nearly three years of occupation.

By engaging early and comprehensively with the Iraqi Security Forces, humanitarians helped shape a battle plan to retake the city, including weighing in on force composition and civilian evacuation. In the end, the operation resulted in far fewer displacements and casualties than humanitarians had initially anticipated — owing in large part to that strategy.

“The Iraqi security forces adopted a humanitarian concept of operations which put civilian protection at the center of their battle plan,” Grande said in an interview while in New York for the U.N. General Assembly.

Grande described lessons learned from the operation as showing the merit of intense and early engagement on humanitarian issues with the fighting forces. “It’s one thing to train a couple of officers on international humanitarian law and another thing to deeply engage with them as they decide on force composition, as they decide on a battle plan — and that’s really what we’ve seen in Mosul, is that kind of engagement,” she said.

The humanitarian strategy centered around encouraging civilians to stay in their homes — under the guarantee that the armed forces would protect them. The security forces refrained from using heavy artillery and other weaponry that could have caused indiscriminate casualties in an urban context.

Meanwhile, for those who chose to leave the city, the military plan “detailed the steps that soldiers would be taking in order to help evacuate civilians across battle lines to safety,” Grande explained. Humanitarians would relay to the security forces how many civilians they could accommodate per day — usually around 10,000 per day.

“During 10 month operation, nearly 1 million civilians were evacuated from the city,” she said, making Mosul “the largest managed civilian evacuation in modern history.”

As a counterpoint to the military’s attention to civilian protection, humanitarians moved far closer to the frontline than they might otherwise have, setting up assistance and medical stabilization points directly along the military line. Evacuees received aid almost immediately after crossing the front lines.

The Iraqi Security Forces were open to a humanitarian plan after growing experience fighting ISIS. By the time they took Mosul, they had already liberated half a dozen other smaller towns and cities.

But perhaps more important was the risk that humanitarians took in building a stronger relationship — one that ultimately gave them leverage in operational conduct. That lesson learned could prove helpful going forward in Iraq, as well as the broader region.

The result of that engagement was a small and simple victory in a fraught conflict: “We ended up in a situation where civilians reached safety and received assistance,” Grande said.

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About the author

  • Dickenson beth full

    Elizabeth Dickinson

    Elizabeth Dickinson is associate editor at Devex. Based in the Middle East, she has previously served as Gulf correspondent for The National, assistant managing editor at Foreign Policy, and Nigeria correspondent at The Economist. Her writing also appeared in The New Yorker, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Politico Magazine, and Newsweek, among others.