For the regime of Haider al-Abadi, a political win success looks like taking back Mosul. For Iraqis, success victory “winning” looks different. As differences go, the differences are critical. Why these differences exist side by side within Iraq is interesting, but the more important issue is what do these differences mean?
I have written at this blog that the job effort of rebuilding Iraq’s military was not as important as rebuilding Iraq, but rebuilding Iraq’s Army was a rebuilding effort that had to occur first. The reasons were and remain, threefold: first, by not pausing to rebuild an Army weakened by incompetence, corruption, internal disorder, and the demands of a determined enemy, the Iraqi Army could arrive at the Syrian border out of Schlitz; that is to say near zero combat viability. Second, rebuilding the Iraqi Army meant teaching a weak institution how to win an insurgency over time and in so doing walk away from the copout strategy of winning by rubblizing Iraqi villages and towns where Daesh forces are dug in. Third, to (re-) professionalize the Iraqi Army would be to avert another collapse of the scope and kind of June 2014.
Today, the Iraqi Army is still not (re-)built anew, only somewhat improved. Inconsistent skills, incompetent leadership, and internal competition remain pervasive challenges throughout the Iraqi military. Regardless, the regime has pressed ahead because it is easier to throw its Army into a fight rather than fix the Army. Is that improvement sufficient to take back Mosul from the IS? Eventually, yes. But at what cost? To the Iraqi Army? To Iraq?
My thesis is that a
victory tactical win at Mosul is not the same thing as national Iraqi success at wiping up the residue of Daesh and the appeal of Islamic radicalization throughout Iraqi society. Like U.S. banks, Baghdad is too important big to fail. The U.S. tripled down on its military assistance. What was unthinkable two short years ago is reality on the ground in Anbar, Nineveh, and Salhuddin: U.S. combat forces are advising, assisting, training, and yes, fighting and dying; alongside and near Iraqi forces.
The concern is that when Mosul is reoccupied by regime forces, rather than ending Iraq’s problems, old causes will produce new problems. In this scenario, the regime does not get the breathing space to rebuild and retool its Army. Indeed, this gets at a another problem too long ignored: what Iraqi villages, towns, and a couple of major cities will look like after booting out the Islamic State. The Iraqi Army’s style of warfare produces tremendous urban destruction. As I have previously written, America’s higher standards for mitigation of civilian casualties and collateral damage do not even fit on the same page as those notions as conceived and practiced by Iraq’s Army.
The IS understands that forcing the Iraqi Army to produce a wake of destruction accomplishes several things at once: first, it punishes locals who did not support the IS, grinds down the pursuing Iraqi Army, and ultimately weakens the regime. How is a regime that takes back Mosul weaker? By weakness I mean the position the regime will likely find itself with respect to two challenges: first, removing the rubble across western and northern Iraq then rebuilding villages and towns; and second, remaking Iraqi society with a national identity. The both of those done but to what end? It is historically obvious now that the internal intervention of external actors—read that to mean the U.S. and its 2003-2011 Coalition of The Willing—while it killed and captured a lot of bad people doing bad things, did not eliminate the underlying forces and causes of radicalization within Iraqi society. This brings us to today. Ahead lies the era of Iraqis fixing Iraq, albeit with some external assistance. We will not see that Iraq nor cultivate its security benefits to the broader Middle East and larger world unless the regime rebuilds Iraqi lives by rebuilding the places where Iraqis live.
Yet as if it cannot catch a break, the regime is more leveraged than ever. Conducting a war now entering its third year in Iraq is expensive; even if America’s military brings back all of its own shells, bombs, and bullets. The huge costs of waging the domestic war and its resulting debt overhang likely means too little money left over to rebuild Iraq’s inhabited areas. If that rebuilding effort is not seen and executed as its own campaign, from the piles of rubble will emerge the next-generation radicalization franchise. Arguably, driving the IS out of Iraq will not end radicalization only displace it as a cause. Disappointingly then, the sea of broken building bricks will become misery’s kindling for more radicalization, again. In contrast, a rebuilt, reconstructed Iraq will be a safer more secure Iraq. In that vision of tomorrow, a rebuilt, retooled Iraqi Army will be better able to protect a better Iraq.
None of it is a pipe dream and all of it is worth doing. Some of it differently; other of it for the first time.
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