It is the saddest, and easiest, prediction to make in global political risk analysis today: we will “win” military victory in Iraq, only to lose the peace. For the dire, ghostly, maddening conclusion must be that the West and its Middle Eastern allies are incapable of learning from history.
The press salivates about the imminent retaking of one of Iraq’s largest cities, Mosul, from the fanatics who run Isis, for that is a simple story they can understand. The more complicated – and far more important – reality is that, until the political poison that led to the rise of Isis in the first place is creatively addressed, the rest of us are merely mowing the lawn, only to have to again deal with Sunni radicalism further down the line.
Just as Al Qaeda in Iraq metastasised into the more virulent Isis, an even more diabolical iteration of Sunni disenfranchisement in Iraq is bound to be spawned in the near future, meaning that, like the incomparable movie Groundhog Day, we will be doomed to repeat this horrendous moment again and again.
The present signs of political dysfunction are there for all with eyes to see. Ahead of the assault on Mosul, there are growing tensions between Baghdad and the Kurds, Baghdad and Ankara, and Baghdad and their restive minority Sunni subjects. Isis is not the real problem; it is merely the ghastly symptom of these larger – and perpetually unresolved – tensions.
Part of the issue, practically excluding any chance to get the longer-term politics right, is the undue haste with which the assault on Mosul is being undertaken. This is because weak but well-meaning Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi of Iraq made the ill-considered public promise that the city would be retaken by the end of this year.
Strategically trapped by this silly pledge, the operation has been rushed, with the political end state that logically follows on from successful conquest being wilfully ignored. Still undecided is the role that the Shia irregular militias will play in the assault of this predominantly Sunni city. In the past, as in the retaking of Tikrit, the militias treated the local Sunni populations with contempt, hardly enticing them back into the Iraqi political fold. Often funded by Iran, more sectarian – and more effective – than Iraqi regular troops, the militias may be essential to victory, but they are a gigantic roadblock to winning the peace.
The other key operational question revealing the political chaos to come is that it has been left glaringly unanswered who will actually run Mosul after it has been taken. And as Shakespeare put it, herein lies the rub.
Mosul sits in Nineveh province, one of the most religiously and ethnically diverse areas of the country. To the north and east lies Kurdistan. As previously stated, the government controlled forces and the militias are Shia. The majority of Mosul’s inhabitants are Sunni. Complicating matters further, however, there are large numbers of ethnic Turkmen in the region – a group closely related in terms of customs and culture with great regional power Turkey, and a group which erratic Turkish President Erdogan has vowed to protect, by force if necessary. As Turkey has troops stationed in northern Iraq at Bashiqa (to the hapless fury of Baghdad), this threat is hardly an idle one.
To yet again ignore the politics, to not make clear who will run Mosul after it has been retaken, is to invite an outcome where facts on the ground will determine who practically runs the place. This will lead to a free-for-all, as the various anti-Isis groups and factions fall upon each other the minute the city is taken. Even if outright fighting is avoided, the bad blood and irredentist claims that naturally arise from such blockheaded confusion are bound to lead to perpetual instability, and most likely the need to repeat the taking of a city in Iraq like Mosul a decade or so down the line.
Until the government of Iraq gets serious about devolving power in a confederal arrangement to its three major ethno-religious groups – the Sunni, the Shia and the Kurds – an outcome which reflects actual political facts on the ground, the country will remain an unstable and dangerous place.
Failure to even begin to incorporate the formerly ruling Sunni into now Shia-dominated Iraqi political life means the largest minority in the country will have no stake whatsoever in its future success. Worse, and highly likely given this hopelessness, the Iraqi Sunnis will flock to a future death cult like Isis, perhaps even more maniacal (if that is possible).
Iraq, like the rest of the world, will only begin to crawl out of the fix it is in if creative, real world policies are devised reflecting political facts on the ground. Don’t hold your breath.