Mosul is one of the most ancient cities in the world, with archaeology dating to the 25th century BC and its first historic mention in ancient Greek. That mention came in the work of Xenophon, sometime mercenary and friend of Socrates, and it describes a city that was already famous for repeated sieges. On Monday evening local time, the Prime Minister of Iraq declared that the latest siege is over. Pockets of resistance remain, but the city has been retaken from the Islamic State (ISIS).
American commanders working with the Iraqi coalition describe the situation as well in hand. Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTFOIR) has congratulated the Iraqi leadership on the campaign in Mosul. Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend noted that the victory was won chiefly by the Iraqi military forces, with Coalition forces and various militias playing a supporting role.
LTG Townsend, who also commands the United States Army’s 18th Airborne Corps, separately pointed out that it is time to consider next steps in Iraq. The BBC reported these comments:
The senior US commander in Iraq has warned that the war against so-called Islamic State (IS) is not over, despite a “historic” victory in Mosul.
Lt Gen Stephen Townsend told the BBC Iraqis needed to unite to ensure IS was defeated across the rest of Iraq.
He also urged the government to reach out to the Sunni Arab minority.
“If we’re to keep… ISIS 2.0 from emerging, the Iraqi government is going to have to do something pretty significantly different,” he said.
“They’re going to have to reach out and reconcile with the Sunni population, and make them feel like their government in Baghdad represents them.”
IS (also known as ISIS) seized control of much of northern and western Iraq three years ago after exploiting widespread Sunni anger at the sectarian policies of the country’s Shia Arab-led government.
The Security Studies Group recently published a plan designed to avoid just the scenario that General Townsend is discussing. He is correct to note that another insurgency is all but certain if the government in Baghdad does not address Sunni alienation.
In the short term, the United States has settled on an immediate approach of stabilization in recaptured areas of Mosul. During a joint press conference featuring Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Special Envoy Brett McGurk, the limits and goals of this approach were laid out. The intent of this process is not “nation-building” nor “long-term reconstruction,” McGurk said. Rather, stabilization efforts are “a low-cost, sustainable, citizen-driven effort to identify the key projects that are essential to returning people to their homes[.]”
That is important because one of the key problems arising from ISIS’s reign has been the creation of refugees. Most of the refugee flow that has been a political issue in Europe lately have been produced by Assad’s regime in Syria, but ISIS has certainly contributed to the problems. United Nations officials estimate that nearly a million Iraqis fled Mosul as a result of ISIS, of whom some 700,000 remain displaced. Most of these are housed with friends or family, or in official refugee camps, and could return to Mosul as it is made safe and habitable. The stabilization work is therefore of significance both in terms of helping them recover their lives, and in avoiding adding to the strain caused by large refugee flows elsewhere.
This stabilization effort will need to be backed by a larger political effort to finish off ISIS without provoking a new insurgency. The victory in Mosul does not mean that ISIS is defeated, but it has lost its largest population center. Small-scale firefights continue, and we should expect further casualties from IEDs and other traps. All the same, ISIS has so far never recovered territory when Coalition forces have backed their enemies. ISIS’s self-declared Caliphate is closing in on its end.