Mosul And The Future Of Iraq

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The 100,000-man assault on the Iraqi city of Mosul has reportedly made swift gains in recent days. After months of slow going, the assault force of Iraqi Army soldiers and Kurdish and Shiite militiamen appears to be wearing down the heavily outnumbered ISIS defenders. Obama administration officials are touting the recent advances as vindication of their strategy of restricting American participation to advice and support of local forces.

If and when Mosul falls, ISIS will lose its largest bastion in Iraq, although not its last. The organization’s ability to mobilize people and conduct operations will suffer a major blow. But ISIS will be far from defeated. History, including the recent history of Iraq, has shown that insurgents do not need to control entire cities to cripple a nation. It has shown, in addition, that insurgents are much less vulnerable to attack when they do not attempt to hold ground. In other Iraqi cities from which ISIS has been ousted, the insurgents have remained active, in some places as active as they were during the Iraq War of 2003-2008.

In that war, the insurgents did not control any cities, aside from a brief period when they held Fallujah. Nevertheless, for several years they held greater sway in much of the country than the Iraqi government and the large U.S. occupation forces. By 2007, many Americans thought that counterinsurgency in Iraq was a lost cause.

The United States eventually set Iraq on a path toward peace and unity by suppressing the insurgents and compelling Iraqi Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds to work together in the national government. The project was derailed by President Obama’s premature withdrawal of U.S. forces at the end of 2011. Following the rise of ISIS, Obama sent thousands of American troops back to provide advice and support, but he chose to leave the job of supplementing Iraq’s weak combat forces to Shiite and Kurdish militias.

Those militias have antagonized Iraq’s Sunni population and Iraq’s neighbors, with far-reaching consequences. As a result of their human rights violations and ethnic cleansing, Iraq’s Sunnis are much less likely to collaborate with Shiites and Kurds today than they were in 2008. Sunni countries in the region are covertly assisting Iraq’s Sunni extremists as a means of countering the influence of Iran and the pro-Iranian Shiite militias. Turkey now has entered the fray, putting troops on Iraqi soil for the purpose of containing the Kurds.

The Obama administration is bequeathing to its successor no viable plans for re-integrating the Sunnis of Iraq into their nation and government. It is a recipe for unending instability, migration of potential extremists to Europe and the United States, and new conflicts involving Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and other countries. Solving the broad problem of Sunni alienation will require much more than retaking a city, even one as large and important as Mosul.

Because Iraq’s fate has become so entangled with that of its neighbors, improvements to Iraq’s condition will depend on actions that go well beyond Iraq. As a general principle, a greater show of American resolve will be valuable in shoring up American friends in the region and instilling caution in adversaries. But if the incoming administration wishes to devise effective strategies for Iraq and the broader Middle East, it will have to take fresh and thorough looks at realities across the region, current and historical.

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