Eastern Mosul, February 2017. Photo by Kawa Omar, courtesy Voice of America.
After three horrifying years, the city of Mosul has been liberated from the barbarous control of the so-called Islamic State group. Yet to call this liberation a “victory” is to stretch that word nearly beyond recognition.
It isn’t much of a victory when, in the center of the city in question, nearly every building has either been damaged or destroyed by bombings and air strikes. It is hardly a victory when, beyond a huge and mostly civilian death toll, nearly half the city’s population has been displaced. And it is hard to understand how victory can be achieved over a group that never should have been allowed to arise from the wreckage of al-Qaida in Iraq in the first place, let alone have a chance to grab a huge swath of territory, including a city of some 2 million people, and terrorize it for three years. How is it a victory when a city is simultaneously liberated and wrecked in a nine-month battle that never should have been necessary?
Yet this is the victory that Iraqi leaders have declared in Mosul.
Despite “pockets” of the city still controlled by the Islamic State group, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared Mosul free on July 10. He congratulated “the armed forces and the Iraqi people” in person, even as airstrikes and gunfire continued in the background and troops helped beleaguered and battered civilians to safety. Those pockets of militants were still holding out more than 36 hours after the prime minister had declared the city was free.
As I observed when the push to liberate Mosul began in earnest last October, Mosul’s liberation will not be the end of the Islamic State group. The organization holds other territory in Iraq, not to mention its substantial foothold in Syria. The U.S.-backed push to oust the Islamic State group from Raqqa has also trapped tens of thousands of people in their homes and already led to what the United Nations called “massive civilian casualties.”
This is not the first time Iraq has found it useful to declare victory. In fact, they announced eastern Mosul’s full “liberation” in January 2017, though contradictory reports made outside verification of the government’s progress difficult. Satellite images have made clear that Mosul’s infrastructure, especially its bridges and the airport, have been devastated; the UN estimated that rebuilding basic infrastructure for the city will cost more than $1 billion – not including the cost to restore services such as water and electricity. Authorities reportedly do not have a post-battle plan for governance, so how quickly any of this work will progress is unclear. Some of the losses of symbolic and historical sites, most notably the Great Mosque of al-Nuri, can never truly be replaced.
The human cost, too, has been incredibly steep. Approximately 900,000 people have been displaced since the Islamic State group seized Mosul in 2014. Thousands of civilians died in the nine-month offensive to re-take the city, and many more were killed during years of Islamic State control preceding it. Those who survived will bear the physical and emotional scars of their ordeal.
Ana Locsin, the Iraq country director of the international nongovernmental organization Save the Children, told the BBC that the psychological impact on children who lived through the horrors in Mosul will be extreme and ongoing. “For children and their families to process these horrors and rebuild their lives, psychological support will be absolutely crucial,” Locsin said.
The fate of the second-largest city in Iraq brings to mind the famous – or infamous – exchange between AP correspondent Peter Arnett and an unnamed U.S. officer regarding the city of Ben Tre, Vietnam in 1968. “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it,” the major reportedly told Arnett. Mosul may not be razed, but its salvation came at a comparable cost.
The battle for Mosul and its aftermath represent an epic failure on the part of both Iraqi and American leaders. It goes back to the “status of forces” agreement that was never negotiated between the Obama administration and the then-leadership in Baghdad after the previous Bush-era agreement expired in 2011. This failure of negotiation resulted in the complete pullout of American forces. Far from the success portrayed by its supporters at the time, this mistake led to the current devastation in Iraq and to the carnage in Syria, along with a major weakening of American strategic position in the Middle East overall. Obama’s slow and tepid course correction did not help, either.
It is the classic Pyrrhic victory: A few more triumphs like this one and there won’t be anyone left to celebrate.