With the Mosul offensive underway, discussion has largely focused on the eventual fate of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), once it is ousted from the city. Yet the most significant barometer of this offensive remains unanswered: what happens if a military victory is not followed by a political accord among Iraq’s competing players?
The signs are not encouraging.
The realities of victory differ when viewed from military and political perspectives. In the build up to the offensive, most of the focus has been on how to achieve a military victory. Here, much debate has centred on the makeup of the force. It is clear that the Iraqi army, under Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s command, will lead the liberation and the operations inside the city.
Yet the supporting cast remains a shaky coalition of Shia paramilitaries under the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU), the Kurdistan Region’s Peshmerga forces, and Sunni tribal units from the area. Iranian, American and Turkish troops will also provide support from the air and the ground. The division of labour among the coalition remains somewhat unclear.
Although the liberation for Mosul represents the biggest deployment of Iraqi forces since 2003, it appears set to be a gruelling and protracted fight. The campaign remains in its infancy with troops clearing uninhabited villages on the outskirts. Moving into the city represents a greater challenge.
ISIS militants, who have been preparing for the battle for over two years, will want to exploit the complexities of urban warfare among civilian populations because they know that the Iraqi army and police are seeking to avoid civilian casualties that can be (mis)interpreted as sectarian killing, as what are perceived to be Shia-led forces enter Sunni-majority lands.
Such considerations present a major challenge to the state-led forces, and have complicated the planning process. Nonetheless, the urban warfare that is set to ensue is likely to bring extensive damage to the city, beyond even the levels of destruction wrought in the battles for Fallujah and Ramadi.
While command and control of the city is likely to be achieved following the battle, it is unlikely that ISIS supporters will be totally removed from the city. Their operations will go underground and transform into more of an insurgency movement—just as Al-Qaeda in Iraq did when it was defeated by Iraqi and American forces in 2008.
A military victory, then, will uproot the ISIS leadership from the city and revive state services. It will also ensure a return to civilian Moslawi rule of the governorate and municipalities, but the violence may not come to an immediate end.
Most critically, these various parties fighting ISIS have yet to come together to define what victory in a political sense would like. Which actors should take over in the interim? What system of government should be implemented? How can the city’s population, one that has been distant from the politics of the central government prior to 2014, be reconciled with Baghdad? This means that once again, in Iraq, coalition forces are going into battle without a clearly defined 'day after' strategy.
But it is not that there is no plan. It is that there are too many. This is because of the competing political interests of the stakeholders involved. Brett McGurk, the US Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, outlined in his State Department briefing on 7 October that there are clearly many competing visions for the future of Mosul among stakeholders, but the priority is to defeat ISIS in the city first before settling those political divisions. Is this short-termism the right approach?
The political strategies and anxieties of the many groups partaking in the liberation will affect their tactics in the fight as well as after it. Each side will attempt to secure as much as possible in anticipation of the post-ISIS power vacuum.
Much of Mosul’s population is multi-ethnic and multi-sect—unlike the populations of the previously recovered cities of Fallujah, Ramadi and Tikrit. This means that post-conflict reconciliation of communities in the aftermath of ethnic warfare will only complicate a political solution.
With a number of political issues remaining unresolved both in regards to Mosul and the wider province of Nineveh, there is likely to be a long and protracted mediation process between competing parties currently united against ISIS. Without a comprehensive political deal being agreed and implemented, the military victory will only be a short-term solution, unable to address the deep-rooted political issues that have produced a back-and-forth since 2003.
It could prove nothing more than a band aid, eventually allowing the re-emergence of ISIS, or a reincarnation of it, in the future. Iraqi leaders must prioritize securing the future of Mosul and its population over their own political positioning.