National Security & Defense

America Has a Second Chance to Do the Right Thing in Iraq

Iraqi security forces assemble east of Mosul, October 15, 2016. (Reuters photo: Azad Lashkari)
If ISIS loses Mosul, victory will once again be within reach — if only we can muster the will to seize it.

The most important news of the day has nothing to do with sexual assault, a firebombed GOP office in North Carolina, or WikiLeaks: Thousands of miles and an ocean away from the American presidential circus, Iraq has launched its offensive to retake Mosul from ISIS.

If the offensive succeeds — and it should, given the extent of American military aid to Kurdish and Iraqi forces — it will be a catastrophic military loss for the most dangerous terrorist group on Earth. It will also give America a second chance to do the right thing in Iraq.

Let’s first focus on the military and propaganda value of victory in Mosul. It’s hard to overstate how much jihadist propaganda relies on the bandwagon effect. For ISIS and groups like it, victory doesn’t just make a theological argument; it stakes a practical claim. It’s a symbol of both divine favor and infidel weakness. There is a reason why Osama bin Laden so confidently declared that people follow the “strong horse.” In the Middle East, strength is its own value.

Shortly after I first arrived in Iraq, my commander was discussing local tribal dynamics with a small group of his staff, when he asked this telling question: “In a room of 100 people, what do you call the man with the gun?” His answer? “The leader.” His point was simple: While there are of course men who truly believe in jihadism, there are many others who are simply siding with the perceived “strong horse” out of sheer self-preservation. One of our goals was to make it clear that we represented the winning side, thus separating the opportunists from the true believers.

The loss of Mosul would represent a serious setback for ISIS, second only to the fall of Raqqa. Though the group has been retreating in both Iraq and Syria for many months, those losses have been offset to some extent by the propaganda value of its successful terror attacks and by its franchising efforts, which have allowed it to set up outposts and affiliates in North Africa and Southwest Asia. But no amount of propaganda could offset the loss of Mosul, one of ISIS’s two principal cities.

The Obama administration would then have one final chance to do the right thing and preserve American victory in Iraq. Let’s be clear: The war in Iraq never ended. America catastrophically disengaged for three years, but the conflict itself continued apace. And now, two years after a completely unnecessary genocide, the United States has a chance to re-cleanse Iraq of jihadists, reset the political balance in the country, and resume the long, unsteady march toward a lasting political settlement.

By the time the next president takes office, Iraq could be almost entirely free of ISIS, with American troops on the ground in sufficient numbers to guarantee a measure of stability and an opportunity to hang on to our hard-fought gains. That won’t be easy. We’ll need to keep sufficient forces on the ground to stiffen the Iraqi Army against any future jihadist counterattack, limit Iranian influence, and help mediate the country’s unceasing sectarian rivalries and conflicts.  

#related#American sacrifices in Iraq have not been wasted. But for the triumph of the Surge, allied forces would not be in the position to retake Mosul with such a minimal American footprint. The fighting would be far more comprehensive, and virtually every Iraqi province would be in flames. Our accomplishments there are often mocked and denigrated, but by the end of the Mosul battle, the nation may be free of genocidal dictators and of genocidal jihadists, and it will have the opportunity to forge a long-term alliance with the United States. None of this is guaranteed — the next president will have to demonstrate a long-term commitment to Iraq’s future, and we can’t fall victim to short-term, impulse-driven politics. But victory is once again attainable. Will America finally show the will grasp it?

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