The Shifting Priorities of Iraq
Almost two and a half years after ISIS took control of Mosul in early June 2014, the Iraqi army launched Operation Fatah, a military campaign aimed at regaining control of the city and its surrounding areas, on October 17, 2016. The operation inscribes itself within the ongoing offensive against ISIS in Iraq, which involves the Iraqi government, Peshmerga (Kurdish) forces, a number of militias under the umbrella of the Popular Mobilization Forces, and an international coalition that includes the United States, United Kingdom, and a variety of other countries. With the city’s liberation slow but inevitable, coalition forces must now shift their focus to addressing key reconstruction and governance issues if they want to ensure the long-term stability of the region.
Besides Mosul, which was at the time Iraq’s second-largest city, ISIS made significant territorial gains during its 2014 summer offensive, seizing control of much of the northern and eastern parts of Iraq. Though some of those gains were quickly erased—notably Sinjar in late 2015—Iraqi forces have generally been slow to retake territory, due in part to ISIS’s unconventional tactics and in part to the difficulty of unifying actors with diverging interests towards a common strategy. The humanitarian consequences of military operations that led to hundreds of thousands of families being displaced further compounded these problems. Six weeks into the offensive, the battle for Mosul is following a similar pattern. While ISIS attempts to draw Iraqi troops into a war of attrition, coalition forces have had to find a balance between the need for quick territorial advances and the humanitarian impact of the operation. More than 70,000 people have fled Mosul since the beginning of the offensive, and many others are thought to be trapped within the city. Nonetheless, with each passing week forcing the progressive depletion of ISIS’s resources, Iraqi troops have been slowly but steadily taking back control of the city.
However, while the liberation of ISIS’s last major stronghold in Iraq will be a significant victory, it is the precursor to the much more complex question of defining a post-war Mosul. One of the most pressing issues will be how to integrate the Sunni-majority city of Mosul into Iraq’s already fragile political dynamic. This is particularly tricky given Mosul’s history of instability and marginalization from the Shi’a-led central government. After the fall of the Ba’ath regime, Mosul quickly became the heart of a Sunni insurgency that lasted until a massive military operation rooted al Qaeda out of the city in 2008. Discontent kept brewing under Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki’s rule and provided an ideological breeding ground that facilitated ISIS’ relatively painless takeover of the city in 2014. Sectarian tensions have only increased since then: to help fight against ISIS, the central government has increasingly relied on Shi’a militias—with tacit agreement and material support from the United States—which have been accused of war crimes, particularly in the weeks that followed the retaking of Sunni-majority cities like Tikrit and Fallujah. The city also borders Kurdistan, which has been involved in its own contentious dispute with Baghdad, and which has seen renewed calls for independence after Iraqi troops abandoned Mosul in 2014, leaving Kurdish forces to defend the northern parts of Iraq for much of 2014 and 2015. History has shown repeatedly, both in the wake of the 2003 war and after the military success of the surge, that focusing solely on military victory and failing to take into account the complex societal forces at play in Iraq can lead to devastating results. Mosul provides the perfect microcosm for violence to re-emerge, and without a concerted effort to re-integrate the city into a political system that addresses its needs and gives it a renewed voice, peace is not likely to last.
In addition to the issue of governance and political integration, rebuilding the city to ensure a return of basic services—not just to the millions of people still in Mosul, but also to the many that have fled—will be vital in ensuring the long-term stability of the region. So far, most of the non-military focus on the city has been on providing emergency humanitarian relief to internally displaced populations that have fled Mosul. Unfortunately, reconstruction efforts have not followed on the heels of humanitarian assistance in previously liberated cities. In Ramadi, which was taken back from ISIS more than a year ago, less than half of the population has returned. The many bridges connecting the two parts of the city are still torn down, de-mining operations are still ongoing, and most of the city is in ruins. More importantly, the local government lacks the money to bring about reconstruction efforts: the combined effect of a two-year war and low oil prices have depleted Iraq’s budget, and the central government has not been able to allocate funds towards each governorate for development. With international organizations focusing on emergency assistance and the United States indicating that it will no longer finance the country’s reconstruction, the rebuilding of Mosul will be slow and painful. Yet without housing, infrastructure, and renewed access to livelihood opportunities, fully re-integrating the city into Iraqi society will be very difficult. Beyond the city’s physical reconstruction, restoring trust with and among its diverse communities will require taking a serious look not just at the atrocities ISIS committed, but also at claims that coalition forces committed human rights violations, including allegations of looting, arbitrary imprisonment, torture, forced disappearances and mass killings in many liberated areas. Without this effort at reconciliation in dealing with the frustrations of people affected by tragedies that have and continue to unfold, a peaceful future will be impossible.
Ultimately, the complex questions of post-ISIS societal and political reconstruction will need to be addressed not just in Mosul but in Iraq at large. Though territorial gains and military victory over ISIS have so far been a positive, unifying force for the many actors involved, the questions of security, stability, justice, and of a reconciled Iraq have yet to be addressed.