After a nine-month-long battle that ravaged Mosul – Iraq’s second-largest city – and took a heavy toll on residents and security forces, Iraqi forces finally achieved victory over the Islamic State (IS). While announcing this historic achievement of triumph over one of the world’s most lethal terrorist groups, the Iraqi Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, entered the remains of the historic al-Nuri Mosque “to announce [Mosul’s] liberation and congratulate the armed forces and Iraqi people on this victory.” However, given the destruction that has been wrought during this arduous campaign, many will find it hard to see anything to celebrate. After the battle, however, many challenges loom as there’s a feeling of déjà vu – Liberation forces arrive and they don’t know how to handle the prize.
With ongoing celebrations in Baghdad and scenes of devastation in Mosul, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has announced the ‘liberation’ of Mosul from Islamic State (IS). No doubt, liberating Mosul from the yoke of IS is a great victory for Iraq’s anti-terror war, but the war-torn country still faces huge challenges of national reconstruction and reconciliation. Abadi’s triumphal speech in Mosul contained no hint of future moves apart from continuing to hunt down IS fighters and, presumably, sleeping cells across Iraq and, perhaps, even beyond in Syria.
It is important to note that the principal focus of IS foes has been on killing the terrorists in Iraq and in Syria, where Syrian forces, with the backing from America, are closer to recapturing IS headquarters, in Raqqa. The longer-term challenge will be addressing the complex factors that have created conditions for the group to thrive, including destructive rivalries between Sunni and Shiite sects, corruption and the failure of governments to meet their citizens’ economic and security needs.
The Iraqi government repeatedly failed to empower Iraqi Sunnis following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003. These mistakes contributed to the sectarian bloodletting of 2006-08, the insurgency that followed America’s withdrawal in 2011 and IS’s lightning offensive in 2014 that nearly shattered Iraq. The Abadi government in Baghdad must overcome the sectarianism that has divided the country for decades. In fact, sectarianism is an even bigger issue in Iraq than it is in Syria, a Sunni-majority country where the ruling Assad family belongs to the minority Alawite sect of Shia Islam.
In 2003, an American-led coalition knocked Saddam Hussein from his pedestal in Baghdad. But instead of taking its place as one of the world’s leading economies, Iraq descended into sectarianism and corruption, creating a breeding ground for Islamic State. As it turned out, a botched occupation, political gridlock in Baghdad and industrial-scale corruption resulted in Washington’s $77.5 billion investment in the new Iraq being frittered away for “few tangible results”, in the judgement of the US Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, who attributed the loss to poor coordination with Baghdad, incorrect priorities, badly planned projects, wastefulness, corruption and security challenges.
Moreover, tensions between Kurds and Iraqis in northern Iraq must be managed, as must Kurdish aspirations for independence in Iraqi Kurdistan. Left unaddressed, such situations will continue to roil Iraqi politics and lead to new conflicts that IS can exploit.
Economic & Security Needs
What emerges from the rubble will determine the future of Iraq. In Mosul, there are pockets of resistance and residual threats from IS sleeper cells, suicide bombers and houses rigged with explosives. If the government fails to provide services and security from militias seeking revenge, the recapture of Mosul could simply set up the next round of Sunni insurgency. But if the government can lure investment and reignite Mosul’s local economy, then its liberation could mark a turning point from one of the darkest chapters in Iraq’s history.
In July, the Iraqi government held a conference in London that brought Iraqi and foreign business-owners together with government officials and experts to discuss the opportunities and barriers to developing the country’s economy. “Now we need a Marshall Plan,” Ibrahim al Jaafari, Iraq’s foreign minister, declared in his opening remarks – a reference to America’s massive reconstruction programme following World War II. He argued that such a plan wouldn’t just be sensible policy, but an obligation of the international community.
Mosul residents have been left traumatized by the violence suffered during three years of IS control. The city has been devastated, including the iconic al-Nuri Mosque and much of the rest of its religious and cultural heritage. At least $1 billion is needed for reconstruction so that thousands of displaced Iraqis can return home.
Role of the United States
The Trump administration has so far failed to put forward a comprehensive strategy to deal with postwar reconstruction in Mosul and other challenges. The White House is reportedly debating whether to get involved in Iraq’s long-term recovery, the kind of overseas venture Trump disparaged during the election campaign. His proposal to greatly reduce the State Department aid budget would limit what America could do. Iraqis bear the primary responsibility for stabilizing their country, but they cannot do it without help.
Dealing with IS remnants
Another dilemma is what to do about the IS fighters who are even now melting back into local communities to regroup, not just in the Middle East but in far-flung parts of the globe. Although IS’s dreams of a caliphate slip away, it still has hold over the hearts and minds of frustrated young potential fighters. Unless a concerted and comprehensive effort is made to discredit jihadists and strengthen political systems, the cycle of violence in the Middle East will remain unbroken. There must also be efforts at the local level to persuade young people not to join militant groups that manipulate Islam for violent purposes.
Iraq squandered one opportunity to remake itself into a stable and pluralistic country. With IS on the run, it should seize this second chance.
IS after Mosul
Ridding Mosul of IS is no small achievement for an army which fled the city in droves only three years ago. The group has suffered a lot in recent months and has lost almost half the territories it once held. Its propaganda blitzkrieg has taken a hit and even its ability to recruit new jihadists is under strain in the wake of battlefield losses. Its leader Baghdadi is either dead or on the run. But do these setbacks mean the IS has been defeated? Has the 21st century ‘Caliphate’ run its course? The ground realities and a historical analysis of the evolution of the IS suggest otherwise.
First, the IS’s proto-state is not completely destroyed yet and it will not be in the immediate future. Though it lost Mosul, the IS still controls swathes of strategic territories in Iraq. Hawijah, a city adjoining Kirkuk that has been with the IS since 2013, continues to pose challenges to the Iraqi troops. The city’s mountainous terrain makes it difficult for the counter-terror forces to move in.
Besides Hawijah, the group controls Tal Afar, Salahuddin province and pockets in Anbar and Diyala. In Syria, it still controls Raqqa, its de facto capital which has been with the group since 2013, and Deir Ezzor, the largest city in the east. The battle to recapture Raqqa has just begun by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and will take time like other anti-IS battles.
Second, the geopolitical fault lines of West Asia, especially in Iraq and Syria, which helped the IS rise in the first place, remain unchanged. In Iraq, a greater challenge before the government is to win over the people in the north and west, mostly Sunnis, who distrust the Shia-dominated government. In Syria, the battle against the IS is more complicated than that in Iraq. All players, from America and the Kurds to Iran and Shia militias, rallied behind the Iraqi government in the war. But in Syria, there’s no such consensus. If chaos prevails, that would be good news for the IS.
Third, the IS is fundamentally an insurgency that transformed itself into a proto-state. Now the proto-state is under attack, but the group can retreat to insurgency for its survival. The history of insurgent groups suggests that it is difficult to defeat them outright. Take the more recent examples of jihadist insurgencies. The Taliban regime was toppled and its fighters were driven out of Kabul in 2001 but the Taliban were never completely defeated.
The IS has already given enough indications that it will move back into insurgency if its proto-state was destroyed. In May 2016, Abu Mohammad al-Adnani, the second-most powerful leader in the IS till his death in August 2016, said in an audio message: “Whoever thinks that we fight to protect some land or some authority, or that victory is measured thereby, has strayed far from the truth.”
All this suggests that the threat is far from over. The IS has already transformed itself into a globalised idea and outsourced its terror mission to groups and individuals who subscribe to its world view. So even if the IS core is destroyed, the IS insurgency, or an ‘al-Qaedafied’ Islamic State, will continue to pose security challenges.
1. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has announced the ‘liberation’ of Mosul from Islamic State (IS).
2. The war-torn country still faces huge challenges of national reconstruction and reconciliation.
3. The longer-term challenge will be addressing the complex factors that have created conditions for the group to thrive.
4. The Iraqi government repeatedly failed to empower Iraqi Sunnis following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
5. Tensions between Kurds and Iraqis in northern Iraq must be managed, as must Kurdish aspirations for independence in Iraqi Kurdistan.
6. The Trump administration has so far failed to put forward a comprehensive strategy to deal with postwar reconstruction in Mosul and other challenges.
7. Unless a concerted and comprehensive effort is made to discredit jihadists and strengthen political systems, the cycle of violence in the Middle East will remain unbroken.
8. Geopolitical fault lines of West Asia, especially in Iraq and Syria, which helped the IS rise in the first place, remain unchanged.
9. The IS has already given enough indications that it will move back into insurgency if its proto-state was destroyed.