ISIS: The Comeback
Paul Rogers: Iraq's depleted military and urban wreckage plant the seeds of an ISIS revival
A quick declaration of military victory was a feature of United States strategy following the rapid early campaigns against the Taliban (October-November 2001) and the Saddam Hussein regime (March-April 2003). In each case, it came during the lull before insurgency escalated with a vengeance. Trump's claim, in relation to ISIS, that "we've won in Syria, we've won in Iraq" should be seen in that light.
ISIS has indeed lost its much-vaunted caliphate in Iraq and Syria, but even here the group remains active and capable of frequent attacks. It and its associates are also launching operations in Somalia, Yemen, the Sahel, Afghanistan and the Philippines, while in Libya it is reconfiguring. Several zones in Africa and Asia may acquire new opportunities for ISIS in 2018, as the co-presence of armed insurgents and US forces create further dynamics of conflict (see Shawn Snow, "New in 2018: The fight against ISIS evolves", Military Times, 31 December 2017).
But it is also worth returning to Iraq: the source of this new phase of war began when ISIS developed out of al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI) in 2013. Two issues that are particularly relevant: the extent of Iraqi army losses and what it means for post-ISIS internal security, and the Iraqi government and US-led coalition's inability to begin the gigantic task of urban rebuilding after their intense aerial and artillery bombardments.
As to the army losses, Iraq's defence ministry announced that the war had cost the army 64,000 casualties, including 26,000 killed (as reported by a Beirut media source). Most external assessments put the army's size as not much more than 100,000. Even if the ministry includes some paramilitary police units and others in its counting, Baghdad will have serious problems in maintaining internal security once ISIS returns to its pre-caliphate strategy of guerrilla warfare.
There has also been evidence that Iraqi special forces, known as the counter-terror service (CTC) or “golden division”, were indeed hardest hit during the close-range infighting in Iraq's northern cities. This had been suggested by news reports in mid-2017, and is now confirmed. In Mosul alone, the CTC lost 40% of its overall strength.
This means the government must now rely much more on Shi’a militias, many of them backed by Iran. In turn, this represents a gift to ISIS as the movement seeks support from an aggrieved Sunni minority, especially in Mosul and other cities' previous inhabitants. ISIS will also benefit from Sunni Arab financial sources in the Gulf states, who continue to worry about increasing Iranian influence across the region, even as the Tehran government confronts internal unrest.
The depletion of Iraq's armed forces helps explain the levels of destruction in cities such as Ramadi and Mosul, in that it led the coalition increasingly to resort to airstrikes and artillery-fire to dislodge ISIS paramilitaries. The civilian casualties were huge, including between 9,000 and 12,000 in Mosul. Soon after Mosul was retaken, the Washington Post published stunning “before and after” satellite images of the city's destruction.
The scale of the crisis is deeply concerning: enormous damage to buildings and infrastructure, hundreds of thousands of people languishing in camps and unable to return. Moreover, Iraq's government and the coalition are evidently failing to engage with the task of physical repair and reconstruction. In a rare detailed investigation, Susannah George and Lori Hinnant of the Associated Press produced a compelling account of west Mosul's devastation.
These experienced correspondents describe a city where 40,000 homes need to be rebuilt or restored, and 600,000 residents out of the original 2 million have fled. An analyst quoted by AP compares the impact of conventional weapons on west Mosul to Dresden in February 1945.
United Nations agencies, as is usual in these situations, try to provide a degree of short-term and longer-term aid. But these face chronic underfunding, amid the prospect of further cuts resulting from the Trump administration’s attitude. In direct aid for stabilisation, $392 million has been provided, with the US (mostly Obama-era) and Germany giving most, Kuwait and the UAE lesser amounts – but nothing listed from Saudi Arabia. A further relevant figure is that Washington as of June 2017 had spent $14.3 billion on fighting ISIS since 2014, but only $265 million on reconstruction.
It might ordinarily be reasonable to argue that these are early days in the post-war period. But the Trump administration has told the Iraqi government it will not fund a reconstruction drive. In this respect, Susannah George and Lori Hinnant's report on the post-liberation experience of Ramadi, another badly damaged city, is worth quoting at length:
“The enormity of the task ahead in Mosul can be grasped by what has – and hasn't – happened in Ramadi, the capital of Iraq's western Anbar province. Two years after it was retaken from IS, more than 70 percent of the city remains damaged or destroyed, according to the provincial council. Nearly 8,300 homes – almost a third of the houses in the city – were destroyed or suffered major damage, according to UN Habitat. All five of Ramadi's bridges over the Euphrates River were damaged; only three are currently under repair. Three-quarters of the schools remain out of commission.
"The Anbar provincial council holds its meetings in a small building down the street from the pile of rubble that was once its offices. Nearly all of Ramadi's government buildings were blown up by the militants. 'We haven't received a single dollar in reconstruction money from Baghdad,' said Ahmed Shaker, a council member. 'When we ask the government for money to rebuild, they said: 'Help yourself, go ask your friends in the Gulf' — a reference to fellow Sunnis.'"
The ultimate responsibility for all that has happened of course rests with ISIS. But the way the US-led coalition defeated its caliphate has turned whole areas to ruin. The phrase of Tacitus – “we made a desert and called it peace” – is again unavoidable, with the added ominous element that ISIS's resurrection (or the emergence of a similar group) may well follow.
A key provincial adviser, Abdulsattar al-Habu, told the Associated Press duo that if Mosul is not rebuilt “it will result in the rebirth of terrorism”. The Trump administration's talk of victory over ISIS is a further grim sign of near total lack of understanding of the problems ahead.