If ISIS Loses Mosul, What Then?

Militants were largely driven from the city during the Iraq War, but they came back. Here's why this time is different.

Peshmerga forces gather on the outskirt of Mosul during preparations to attack Mosul, Iraq
Peshmerga forces gather on the outskirt of Mosul during preparations to attack Mosul, Iraq (Ari Jalal / Reuters)

On October 17, 18,000 Iraqi Security Forces, 10,000 Kurds, several thousand policemen, and an array of Sunni and Shia militia fighters, along with their American advisors, began a long-awaited campaign to take back the Iraqi city of Mosul from the Islamic State. “I am announcing today the beginning of these heroic operations to liberate you from the brutality and terrorism of ISIS,” Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared in a televised statement marking the start of the operation. “God willing, we will meet soon on the ground of Mosul where we will all celebrate the liberation and your freedom.”

Mosul fell to ISIS in June 2014, in a staggering humiliation for the U.S.-financed and -trained Iraqi military. The Islamic State declared itself a caliphate there, and in the months that followed, expanded its territory, at one point coming to occupy large parts of Syria and Iraq and effectively erasing parts of the border between the two. In the meantime, its apocalyptic aspirations helped inspire a new generation of attackers around the world.

From its peak in 2014, ISIS has today lost by one estimate roughly half of the territory it controlled in Iraq and 20 percent in Syria. But the campaign to take back Mosul, once Iraq’s second-largest city and the group’s last major Iraqi stronghold, is destined to be particularly complex. An Iraqi Kurdish general has estimated it could take two months, and the coalition faces numerous potential dangers from, among other things, ethnic and sectarian tensions within their own ranks; improvised explosive devices, booby traps, and possibly chemical weapons; an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 ISIS fighters in the city and possible sleeper cells hiding among the civilian population; and, as the battle accelerates, a surge of up to 1.3 million refugees out of the city.

So what lies ahead for Mosul, during and after the current campaign? I spoke recently with Michael Knights, a scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who has studied how sectarian strife and political dysfunction made Mosul so vulnerable to collapse in the first place. He’s optimistic that its institutions and governing bureaucracies, which he says have remained largely in place even under ISIS, will help safeguard a transition back a kind of normalcy once the group is driven out. What follows is a condensed and edited transcript of our conversation.

Siddhartha Mahanta: Back when Mosul was first being brought under control by the Iraqi government from 2007 to 2011, what challenges did it face?

Michael Knights: In 2007 and 2011, the city had been prioritized by the forerunner of ISIS—al-Qaeda in Iraq or Islamic State of Iraq. It had been prioritized because it was a great place to make money. It actually made a profit, so it supported ISI operations in other parts of Iraq. In addition, the city had had enough of domination by outside forces.

After the [U.S.-led] invasion in 2003, the coalition let some of the Kurdish and Shiite political parties take advantage of Mosul. That meant that they took over the provincial government. They took over all the government contracting, and they began to also draw wealth and economic opportunities out of the city. They began to crack down very hard on the majority-Sunni population.

Mosul was very fertile ground for ISI, and it was very lucrative for ISI. That was the key challenge: The population was alienated from the security forces and from the local government, and ISI was very strong on the ground and had control of a lot of money-making ventures.

Mahanta: Following all that, things fell apart, leading up to ISIS taking over the city in June of 2014. Why did it fall so quickly?

Knights: The story of Mosul, unfortunately, over the last 10 years, is that we make promising headway, we take our foot off the gas, and it falls backwards and it destabilizes again. The question is whether we take our foot off the gas again, or whether we build on the stability that will result from the end of this security operation.

Mahanta: In your writing, you've argued that ISIS managed to secure Mosul so easily due to a lack of unity and collaboration on the part of the Iraqi, Kurdish, and other associated forces. Do you see any improvement on that score now?

Knights: This operation seems to have taken into account the last experience of losing Mosul. The security planners have recognized that the Iraqi security forces will be greeted as liberators in Mosul for the first time ever if we play our cards right. The introduction of Kurdish peshmerga to Mosul is one of the factors that kickstarted the Sunni insurgency in 2004, and the introduction of Shia militias would have a similar effect now. So the Iraqi government and the coalition planners have worked very hard to keep both the Kurdish peshmerga and the Shia militias out of the Mosul urban battle.

Now, instead of an outside force coming in to disrupt a functioning society, which is what happened in 2003 when the coalition invaded, we have a national army and counterterrorism service coming to Mosul to free the people from 30 months of medieval dictatorship. And for the first time ever, Iraqi security forces in Mosul may be greeted as liberators. A huge amount of effort and thinking is going into making sure that this scenario plays out and that we don't repeat the mistakes of the past.

Mahanta: That point about greeting the Iraqi security forces as liberators—we’re talking about just barely over two years ago, the perception of the security forces as being anything but that. To your point, this is a situation where, two and a half years under medieval dictatorship, as you put it, really can change perceptions.

Knights: When I say they'll be greeted as liberators, that's not just based on a hunch. It’s based on the way the Iraqi security forces have been greeted in the cities that they’ve entered prior to Mosul, including ones quite close to Mosul such as Qayara. One of the factors that is going to change Mosul's mindset is the experience of living under ISIS. Sunni Arabs wondered for a long time what it would be like if they could militarily defeat the Baghdad government. Now they've found out.

The second reason why Mosul residents may greet the government as liberators initially is that they see a big difference between the current prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, and the former prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki. Abadi has been closer to the U.S., and has made the right noises about sectarian reconciliation and the decentralization of powers to Mosul's government. As a result, the people may be willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Mahanta: There's also the question of politicizing the military structure: selecting military commanders for their political loyalty or for bribing government officials. You've argued that this led to something of a lack of cohesion among the command structure in Mosul, which ended up degrading the security forces’ ability to actually respond when ISIS rolled in. Do you think that’s still a threat?

Knights: The ability to build a stable and representative set of commanders for Mosul—to ensure they represent the ethnic makeup of Mosul—will be based on the strength of Abadi. If Abadi can keep getting stronger, he’ll be able to hold off Shia challengers like Maliki, and he'll be able to keep the Shia militias at bay. At the moment, the Mosul security forces are led by a Sunni Arab from the Mosul area, General Najim al-Jabouri, and it’s important that the Mosul security forces stay in the hands of a local Sunni Arab commander who’s respected by local people. In the lead-up to 2014, we had really chronic instability in the command-and-control framework in Mosul. The key leaders were being changed literally every six months, and they were being replaced by people who were progressively less professional each time, and ISIS took full advantage of this confusion.

Mahanta: There's also the question of the urgency to control the extent to which Kurdish peshmerga fighters and militias end up shaping the outcome of both the battle for Mosul and the aftermath. Why is that so important?

Knights: The city of Mosul sits right on the edge of the dividing line between Arab and Kurdish Iraq, and there is a very long history of violent ethnic struggles between the Arabs and the Kurds. The people of predominantly Sunni Arab Mosul are very sensitive to the entry of Kurdish peshmerga forces into the city. And similarly, Mosul is the center of Sunni Iraq. And it has only a very small number of Shia residents. So the people of Mosul are very sensitive to the possibility of Iranian-backed Shia militias trying to take over Mosul.

Mahanta: What sorts of investments in political stability and security does Mosul need after ISIS is gone, whenever that may be?

Knights: That's the key question. All of the gains that Iraq and the coalition have achieved over the last 18 months, all of the cities that have been liberated, were due to the team effort between Iraq and a majority of the G-20 states gathered together under the combined joint task force or coalition. We need to continue this multi-national effort to support Iraqi security.

The best way to do that is to extend the mission of Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR), the multinational coalition dedicated to destroying ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The mission of CJTF-OIR is not complete. As stated, the mission is to degrade the military threat from ISIS until the Iraqi security forces can handle it on their own, and that benchmark has not been reached yet, because ISIS will continue to operate as a major terrorist organization, and continue to find safe havens in Iraq’s mountainous and desert areas, and along the Syria-Iraqi border, which is very hard to police. So we need an ongoing train-and-equip effort, and a very close intelligence and special [operations] forces relationship.

I’ll give you one example of something we need to do, and where the international community can provide a great deal of assistance. Every time ISIS has been defeated in Mosul, it has reemerged as a mafia-type network. It assassinates and intimidates people who have control of financial resources, like the people running the gold markets or mobile-telephone operators or the people running the real-estate department in the city, and then it slowly amasses money and influence, and then it comes back stronger than before. What we need in Mosul is a counter-organized crime effort supported by international intelligence and police forces. We need to help the Iraqis to finally destroy ISIS in the city by finally destroying their mafia-style organized-crime networks. If we do this, we break the chain of events that inevitably leads to an ISIS resurgence in Mosul.

Mahanta: Have the coalition partners really adjusted to begin to think of ISIS in those terms, particularly once they become essentially an Islamic State without a state?

Knights: Well, this is the only upside about ISIS coming back every five years, which is that the U.S. government people involved in the planning of this current operation are the same people who defeated ISIS back in 2003, and then defeated them again in the 2008 timeframe. And the U.S. military are the people who wrote the book on how ISIS financial networks are structured in Mosul. We captured all of their financial documents, we have a very fine-grained understanding of how they've done this in the past, and the Iraqi intelligence agencies have a good understanding of this as well. So I think we are quite ready to make that mental switch, and we recognize as well that the bit that we've just done is in many ways the easy part. When they stand up and fight us on the field of battle, they are playing to our strengths. Now, we have to learn to play to their strengths and defeat them on their preferred arena, which is terrorism, insurgency, and organized crime.

Mahanta: Mosul’s Kurds, its Shias, its Christians, its Turkmen, its other minorities largely fled over the past two years. What’s the impact of the city being so Sunni now? Does the Iraqi government need to do more to make it easy to ensure the safe return of those who’ve left?

Knights: The majority of people who have left the city are the Kurds, the Shia Turkmen, the Yazidis, and other ethno-sectarian groups who would have been eliminated or grossly persecuted by ISIS. So the ones who need to return have nothing to fear from the peshmerga or the Shia militias. They’d rather they be there.

But that’s why it’s so important to have cross-sectarian, multi-ethnic security forces that reflect the population of Mosul, and not just the population of today, which is heavily Sunnified, heavily Arabized by ISIS. Probably about a third of people [of a prior population over 2 million] left Mosul after ISIS took over, and that gives you a sense of how many people we need to convince that it’s safe to go back. Now, a lot of those people don’t have a choice. The Kurdistan region has been very patient, but they’re fed up, having hundreds of thousands of displaced people overstressing their domestic systems and economy. And so they’re just going to have to go back. But this isn’t like America, where you’re trying to deport some asylum-seekers. This is one part of Iraq, Kurdistan, simply saying, “The day has come. Here's the truck. Get on it. We're taking you back to Mosul.” So they won't have anywhere else to go but home when that moment comes. Now, whether they stay there or leave again is up to them, but hopefully we stabilize the situation enough that they say, “Yeah, I'm willing to go home.”

One of the big things we’ve got to do is assist them with rapid property-dispute resolution. Think about this: You’re a person who given a house by ISIS. You’re from a very poor village, and ISIS said, “There's this house that a Christian family left, so you go live in it.” And your own house maybe got destroyed in the fighting. So when the Christians come back, they say, “Get out of our house.” But you haven't got anywhere to go. And this is one of the problems we get in Iraq—compounded levels of displacement. Is it really fair to throw those people out of the house just so another family can move back into it? Who can prove whose house it is? Who has papers, if ISIS has been destroying the deeds of the house and issuing its own deeds?

Mahanta: What governing and judicial institutions must be rebuilt after ISIS?

Knights: This isn’t 2003. We're not taking a system completely apart. We are restoring a system that existed two and a half years ago, some of which have existed without ISIS’s occupation. For instance, the municipalities departments in Mosul continue to operate under ISIS, though they just changed their name to the ISIS services division. And so we can reactivate those probably relatively easily. The government treasury departments will be easy to start up again, and they're the ones that pay people their salaries and their pensions and so on. In fact, a lot of people in Mosul have been continuing to receive things like pensions through things like phone-banking. We, just in the last few days, reactivated Mosul's cell phone network, and a lot of people have just found their phones switching on, even though they've had no service since November 2014. We've worked with all of the cell-phone operators to turn that stuff back on and beam cell-phone transmission into the city. There will still be functional electricity. We have a provincial government, elected in 2013, still within its four-year term, operating in absentia in the adjacent Kurdistan region. We actually have a governor of Mosul right now, and a deputy governor, and we have committees of the provincial council, and we can simply move them back into Mosul as soon as we have the physical space to put them in.

Mahanta: You've argued that ISIS’s takeover of Mosul was a referendum not only on the ineffectiveness of Iraqi security and government establishments but a populist expression of class warfare when poor Sunnis viewed the movement as a means to mobilize. How much of this is a concern going forward? How do security forces identify and root out ISIS loyalists, and how will we define collaborators in a fair, humane way?

Knights: It's interesting to think about. The Nazis controlled France for four years before it was liberated. ISIS has controlled Iraq for two and a half years. So it's had a very substantial period of time in charge. And we remember how much payback there was in France after the liberation. So people are going to be judged on their individual merits, and I think there will be some understanding made for the fact that civil servants had the same position during the course of the ISIS occupation. People will be judged according to whether they profited from ISIS, whether they were unduly cruel or in some way sympathized with their broader ambitions. But I don't think that continuing to sympathize with the people of Mosul will be held against civil servants.

When I was in Mosul talking to security forces back in 2010-2011, some parts of the city were so deprived, and there was such high unemployment, between the former military officers and the young men, that they were easy prey for extremist movements like ISIS. So if we want to prevent the have-nots from joining ISIS again one day, we need to spread opportunity in Mosul, and education, to the poorer neighborhoods, and to the very important rural towns around Mosul. We've got to also eliminate these pockets of vulnerable communities: the poor, widows, orphaned children, people in the prison and juvenile detention systems. These are the places where ISIS will pop up again, and we've got to finish the job by focusing on those communities.