The past history of the Islamic State should give us pause in assuming a rapid collapse following the fall of Mosul, write Craig Whiteside and Rasha al-Aqeedi. Iraq’s experience in dealing with the so-called caliphate provides a useful gauge to assess success in this enduring fight.
This article is part of a new series of Inside Policy posts that will explore different aspects of global security - in a continuation of MLI's Global Security Look Ahead project.
By Craig Whiteside and Rasha al-Aqeedi, March 10, 2017
The impending fall of Mosul has analysts and policymakers asking, “what is next after the Islamic State?” Both the central nervous system (Raqqa, Syria) and the heart (Mosul, Iraq) of the so-called caliphate are under severe pressure, and their loss would be an important milestone in the rollback of this infamous and odious collection of terrorists, genocidaires, criminals, and revolutionaries. At the same time, the Islamic State has witnessed the loss of its crown jewel affiliate in Libya, dousing hopes of further expansion in the fragile Sahel region. These are important indicators of the direction the self-proclaimed caliphate is heading. Yet the past history of this movement should give us pause in believing that these catastrophes will inevitably lead to a rapid collapse or demise of a very coherent organization that has demonstrated its resiliency in its decade-plus existence.
Iraq is where the Islamic State was born, and is likely the only place that can demonstrate to the rest of the world how it can be defeated.
While the campaign in Syria against the Islamic State has some fundamental problems – the Assad government is too weak to realistically take over eastern Syria and the suitability of the Kurds to spearhead the take over of Sunni-populated areas of Syria have been questioned – it is in Iraq that we can best measure the probabilities that the Islamic State can be beaten in the long run. Iraq is where the Islamic State was born, and is likely the only place that can demonstrate to the rest of the world how it can be defeated.
Two years ago, one third of Iraq’s territory was under the control of the Islamic State. While the group focused its brutality on the Yazidi, Christian, and Shi’a populations in an attempt to drive them off or convert them, it had presented itself to the Sunni Muslims of Salahuddin, Anbar, and Ninewa as their protectors from the infidels and apostates, which in Islamic State speak refers to the West and those that serve the relatively secular Iraqi government. This narrative has dramatically failed since that highpoint; not only has the Islamic State failed to protect Sunnis from these “threats,” but their own economic mismanagement and provocation of powerful nations has brought ruin to many Sunni cities in western and northern Iraq. Of the nearly three million internally displaced Iraqis, the overwhelming majority are Sunnis who have fled brutality, abuse, and the instability brought by the radicals who took control of their areas in 2013-14.
In Tikrit, the majority of displaced people have returned to what can be described as a normal life in comparison to the travesty of Islamic State rule, despite some early and troubling instances of sectarian behavior associated with elements of the government’s campaign to liberate the city. To the government’s credit, this misbehavior has been reduced to minor levels - a fact that has encouraged the return of citizens. The major cities in Anbar, left nearly emptied of its population and extensively damaged by the fighting, have schools and hospitals reopening. More recently, East Mosul was spared the destruction of Fallujah and public employees have already reported back to their designated posts after a two-year absence. It will be a long, slow recovery, but the pace is quickening.
The key to keeping the trajectory of the Islamic State in the current direction falls on Prime Minister Abadi and his ministers.
The key to keeping the trajectory of the Islamic State in the current direction falls on Prime Minister Abadi and his ministers, who must match the energy and enthusiasm that the Islamic State displayed in presenting an alternative to the incumbent government. This could be difficult in the current fiscal environment. The next phases of reconstruction and provision of basic services, such as electricity, usable water, and health care relies on money allocated from the annual budget of Iraq, which is under severe pressure due to its reliance on the energy sector during a sustained period of low oil prices. Compounding these budget problems has been endemic government corruption at all levels, which has influenced a minority of Sunni Iraqis to embrace the Islamic State as a more just form of government – much like Afghans celebrated the initial Taliban period. Uprooting corruption at the local municipality level would maximize the scarce monies received from Baghdad and contribute to the reconstruction effort. It remains a long shot, but unless public offices are obliged to force severe checks and balances on the committees in charge of reconstruction projects, the areas liberated from ISIS will suffer in comparison to the rest of the country, making it once again the target of the Islamic State’s victimhood and incitement narratives.
Another thing the Islamic State leaves behind is a divided Sunni community. The spectrum of reasons and motives to join or support the Islamic State is relatively broad, and the group successfully recruited individuals from different social backgrounds and hierarchies. Throughout the past two and half years, the majority of Islamic State members, enablers, and supporters emerged from the underground to contribute to the running of the caliphate. Some of these individuals belonged to established families that are now ruined through association. Local governments need to play a proactive role in adjudicating these social disputes through the formation of local tribunes to carefully identify the guilty and implement justice. To avoid an endless cycle of revenge killings and attacks, the establishment of functioning reconciliation and rehabilitation programs for families of both ISIS victims and assailants can help heal the fractured Sunni communities.
As the Islamic State has proved in its actions in France and elsewhere, this is a collective problem now.
This leads to the important issue of detention in the post-caliphate period in Iraq. The Iraqi criminal detention system was not in good shape before 2014, and its failings contributed in no small manner to the rise of the Islamic State – due to its laxity and corruption, and the perception of Sunni mass incarceration. Today, these problems are of course magnified ten-fold under the current weight of tens of thousands of prisoners swept up in the effort to defeat the Islamic State. As the United States has learned from its Guantanamo problem, prosecuting prisoners collected on a polluted battlefield by untrained people, in criminal courts, is a difficult task. Nonetheless, if the Iraqi government is unable to come up with better solutions, a third return of the Islamic State is a distinct and likely possibility. In this case, sovereignty concerns should not preclude the active assistance and resources of the international community. As the Islamic State has proved in its actions in France and elsewhere, this is a collective problem now.
A recognition of these challenges is important for all the relevant actors to avoid the mistakes of 2009-2013, mistakes that have led to the loss of thousands of lives and the return of incredible violence and tension throughout not just Iraq and Syria, but to lesser degrees in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, as well as in western countries. The stakes in this game just keep getting higher, with the important set-piece plays still to come.
Craig Whiteside is a professor of National Security Affairs at the US Naval War College Monterey. He has published extensively on various aspects of the Islamic State movement.
Rasha al-Aqeedi is a fellow at Al Mesbar Studies and Research Center in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, with a primary focus on Iraq, the Gulf, and Islamism. She is a native of Mosul, Iraq.