WHY MOSUL MATTERS?
In 2014, the Islamic State seized Mosul in Iraq. Its fighters advanced rapidly from Syria. Instead of fighting, the Iraqi military melted away. The Islamic State’s takeover of the Sunni provinces of Nineveh and Anbar was blitzkrieg-like. With its size, nearby oilfields and surrounding fertile land, Mosul became the jewel in the Islamic State crown. The fall of Mosul made mockery of US claims that it had “strategically defeated” al-Qaeda and of Iraqi claims that it was a functioning state. It was here that Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim al-Badri, otherwise known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, proclaimed himself as a caliph and his realm a caliphate.
In the aftermath of Mosul, the Iraqi government led by Nouri al-Maliki dismissed the commander who lost Mosul, Lieutenant General Mahdi Sabeh al-Gharrawi. A special report by Reuters found that Maliki and his most senior officers shared at least some of the blame. A later parliamentary probe in Iraq implicated Maliki and 35 other officials. It turns out that “troop shortages and infighting among top officers and Iraqi political leaders played into Islamic State’s hands and fueled panic that led to the city’s abandonment.” Maliki and his defense minister also turned down repeated offers of help from the Peshmerga, the Kurdish fighters in northern Iraq.
Maliki was relying on a tiny Shia clique around him, and the fall of Mosul captured all that was wrong with post-2003 Iraq. Once the US got rid of Saddam Hussein and decimated the Sunni-dominated Baath Party, Shia leaders engaged in a power grab and decided it was time for comeuppance. Many Iraqis hold Maliki especially responsible for exacerbating sectarian tensions between Shias and Sunnis. He favored Shia commanders like Gharawi who were quite trigger-happy with the Sunnis and committed numerous extra-judicial killings. This made him a hero for many Shia leaders but, as the Reuters special report points out, “Sunnis see him as a murderer who used Iraq’s war on extremism as a cover for extorting money from businesses and menacing innocent people with arrests and killings.”
Gharawi rose through a military riven by sectarian splits, deep corruption and sordid politicking. Not only was he accused of killing hundreds, but he was also suspected of torturing prisoners. Gharawi claims he was merely performing his duty in a bloody civil war. For instance, his brother was killed by Sunni militants. The reality is that Gharawi was most likely a bit of a warlord stealing money and engaging in extortion. Under Maliki, most commanders in the Iraqi military were savage thugs and corrupt warlords. Unsurprisingly, Reuters deemed this military as a “failed institution at the heart of a failing state.”
Three years later, Iraq might not be in fine fettle but its new prime minister is back in Mosul. Haider al-Abadi announced “the end and the failure and the collapse of the terrorist state of falsehood and terrorism” that the Islamic State had created. The victory in Mosul has not come cheap or quick. In October 2016, a 100,000-strong alliance of Iraqi government units, Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and Shia militias launched the offensive to retake Mosul. The US and its allies provided key air and ground support. So did Iran. Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, hailed volunteer fighters and admitted that Iran had sent “thousands of tons” of arms and fighter jets to Iraq.
Abadi might be strutting around Mosul in a black uniform, but it makes a grim setting for peacockery. Much of the city of 1.5 million is a bombed out shell of its former self. Air strikes have flattened centuries-old stone buildings. One of the Islamic State’s last acts was to blow up the historic al-Nuri mosque and its famous leaning minaret, al-Hadba. Temperatures are running as high as 45°C and Mosul’s malnourished population faces real threat of disease. Despite these grim conditions, Abadi is in Mosul to make a point. He wants to show his countrymen and the world that the Islamic State is finished and the Iraqi state still stands.
WHAT HAPPENS NOW?
It is almost an adage that maintaining peace is more difficult than winning at war. In 2003, US troops swept through Iraq with laughable ease, but governing the country proved to be far more difficult. The conquest of Mosul does not solve any of the thorny issues confronting Iraq, the region or the world.
First, the Islamic State might not quite be dead yet. It might now focus on acts of terror instead of conquering and holding territory. In particular, it might launch attacks through “lone wolves” or small groups in London, Paris, Baghdad and elsewhere. The organization and its supporters still retain the capacity to attract recruits, get hold of weapons, find money and inflict random acts of violence.
Furthermore, Mosul might become a useful story for propaganda purposes. Fighters of the Islamic State held out for nine months despite relentless attacks from vastly superior numbers. The US Department of Defense estimates that Iraqi special forces spearheading the fight lost up to 40% of their fighters.
Second, the coalition that reconquered Mosul might not stick together for too long. Abadi would like to keep Iraq united, but the Kurds have long wanted an independent state. The glue that kept them together was the Islamic State. Similarly, the Iranians and the Americans are exceedingly strange bedfellows. With Mosul back in Iraqi hands, tensions between Iran and the US might again start boiling over. As the June 25 edition of The World This Week explained, Saudi Arabia is increasingly throwing its weight around in the region and is unlikely to be comfortable with Shia ascendancy in a once Sunni-dominated Iraq. As a key US ally, it might be able to get a Trump-led White House to back it in a confrontation with Iran. Already, the Saudis have gone to war in Yemen and Syria is still simmering on the hob.
Third, the Abadi-led and Iran-supported Iraqi government might engage in triumphalism or even vendetta. As Ibrahim al-Marashi writes for Al Jazeera, the Iraqi state fails to meaningfully include marginalized groups such as Arab Sunnis, Christians or Yazidis. Even if the Islamic State vanishes like water vapor in a hot desert, the issue of incorporating minorities in Iraq will not go away. Just as al-Qaeda weakened and the US celebrated, the Islamic State popped up. If Arab Sunnis feel marginalized, they are not likely to protest using Gandhian methods. Far too much blood has been spilled in the land of the Tigris and the Euphrates, making the recurrence of ethnic strife or civil war a highly likely outcome.
So far, the Abadi government has not put reconciliation high on its agenda. Tikrit, Falluja and Ramadi were conquered over 2015 and 2016. Yet the “reconstruction and resettlement of these urban centers has been ad hoc and lethargic.” More than a shortage of money, corruption and a lack of political will are responsible for the dire state of affairs.
Fourth, victory in Mosul will do nothing to reform the Iraqi state that is not accountable to its citizens and that allows gross abuses of power. Corruption is a way of life. Security forces are almost invariably predatory. Many politicians command paramilitaries and operate a shadow state within a state. When it comes to basic services, the state fails most citizens except the rich and powerful. This leads to resentment and raises questions as to how long Iraq might last in its current geographical and political form.
Finally, the Mosul victory does nothing to lessen the economic squeeze that Iraq is going through. Much of the country is devastated and deeply divided. It is also in debt. At such a time, the International Monetary Fund is strengthening “procedures to keep expenditures under control.” Oil prices are falling unhelpfully even as food and water are in short supply. The euphoria over the military victory carries a real risk that regional and global actors involved in Iraq might neither give the country money nor share technical expertise to emerge from the economic doldrums.
The fall of Mosul has to be followed by other efforts. Otherwise, it will change nothing or might even lead to new troubles. Marashi rightly argues that “true victory in Mosul will not be measured in capturing a destroyed mosque, but long-term, sustainable strategies that might not be captured in a single tweet.”
Featured Image Credits : Haider Al-Abadi
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