The operation to recapture the city of Mosul from Islamic State militants began last week. The Iraqi government and the Kurdish peshmerga are leading the main ground assault. U.S. special operations forces are advising Iraqi security forces, and the U.S. is expected to continue bombarding ISIS targets with airstrikes. Yet, the key question that needs to be answered before the presumptive liberation of Mosul is this: what exactly happens after the Islamic State loses one of its last major strongholds in Iraq? More specifically, what will the U.S. do to strengthen the Iraqi state and ensure that ISIS or a similar group does not emerge again in the region?
Unfortunately, you will not find a clear articulation of the U.S. role in creating a stable Iraq at the presidential debates. At the final presidential debate, Secretary Clinton and Mr. Trump spoke of the Iraqi operation to liberate Mosul when pressed by moderator Chris Wallace about U.S. involvement post-liberation. Mr. Trump’s largely incoherent response was aimed principally at attacking the Democratic nominee for her support of the Iraq War and denouncing the U.S. withdrawal from the country. Secretary Clinton, on the other hand, noted that she would not commit U.S. troops as an “occupying force” in Iraq. She seemed more willing to lay out her plan for targeting the militant group in Syria than providing a direct answer to Wallace’s question.
To understand what U.S. involvement in the region might look like after the liberation of Mosul, one must operate under the very reasonable assumption that the U.S. wants a stable, militant-free Iraq that is actualized with as little American casualties as possible. In addition, the U.S. must be cognizant of the fact that the Iraqi operation will likely create a very immediate problem with a new wave of refugees fleeing the fighting that will take place over the coming weeks.
If stability in Iraq is to be achieved, the Iraqi state must first start rebuilding what has been lost in the military campaign. The government must be prepared to deal with sustained resistance from ISIS for several years and will likely need to draw on financial assistance from the United States, as it attempts to rebuild the country.
If the United States wants a stable Iraq, it must recognize that the end of ISIS only marks the beginning of a long, complicated process to bring together a fractured country.
While the threat of ISIS has united Shia and Kurdish groups, the ethnic and religious strife that fostered the conditions for the rise of ISIS in the first place still exists in Iraq. Regional cooperation will likely fracture with the fall of Mosul and the decline of the Islamic State’s influence. Dr. Ranj Alaadin, a scholar in contemporary Middle Eastern History at the London School of Economics, notes that the liberation of Mosul signals the start of the “day after ISIS” and essentially the beginning of an Iraq that many competing factions with various interests want a stake in.
The immediate challenge for the Iraqi government is extending its legitimacy to the disillusioned Sunni Arab populations across the country. Iraq must build an inclusive government that does a better job of incorporating its large Sunni Arab population. Moreover, the Kurd’s prominent role in the campaign against ISIS suggests that they are seeking some form of reward post-ISIS Iraq. The United States should help to integrate these competing factions in Iraq and serve as a much-needed arbitrator for creating political stability.
Although the threat of the Islamic State in Iraq may decline with the retaking of Mosul, the threat of terrorism will likely remain for many years to come. The United States must be ready to provide military resources to Iraq in order to defeat remnants of the organization. Deploying Special Forces to hunt down ISIS members will be a necessary strategy for the next administration, even if the presidential candidates did not articulate their policies at the last debate.
Of course, the vision of a stable Iraq can only be actualized if the Iraqi government is willing to offer disillusioned factions a stake in the government. If the United States wants a stable Iraq, it must recognize that the end of ISIS only marks the beginning of a long, complicated process to bring together a fractured country. The United States must commit to providing the financial and military resources Iraq needs to fill the region’s power vacuum and incorporate its diverse peoples.