Is This What “Liberation” Looks Like? U.S. Airstrikes Have Devastated Mosul.

ISIS may be on its way out, but the Iraqi city has a long road ahead.

Phyllis Bennis July 20, 2017

A view of the destruction in Mosul during the Iraqi government forces' offensive to retake the city from ISIS. (Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP via Getty Images)

ISIS’ occu­pa­tion of Mosul, once Iraq’s sec­ond largest city, has vir­tu­al­ly come to an end. Though small-scale fight­ing con­tin­ues, and U.S. mil­i­tary strikes con­tin­ued through at least July 17, ISIS con­trol over the city has large­ly col­lapsed. Many among the ISIS forces were killed, many fled and many have prob­a­bly melt­ed back into local com­mu­ni­ties. U.S., Iraqi, and some oth­er gov­ern­ments and media are cel­e­brat­ing the defeat of ISIS as the lib­er­a­tion of the city. 

Destroying the village—or in this case the city—will certainly not end terrorism, nor will it mean the end of ISIS.

Cer­tain­ly there is a great relief for the hun­dreds of thou­sands of res­i­dents who were dri­ven out of their homes or who sur­vived years of ISIS bru­tal­i­ty, extrem­ism and des­ti­tu­tion. Cer­tain­ly the end of ISIS con­trol of its largest Iraqi pop­u­la­tion cen­ter is impor­tant in the strug­gle to reduce and even­tu­al­ly end the financ­ing, mil­i­tary pow­er and glob­al appeal of the ter­ror­ist orga­ni­za­tion. The same is true of the like­ly mil­i­tary defeat of ISIS in Raqqa, its Syr­i­an cen­ter and cap­i­tal” of its so-called caliphate.

But, as the New York Times vast­ly under­stat­ed in an edi­to­r­i­al last week, the cel­e­bra­tion should be brief.”

Who Pays the Price?

The price paid by the peo­ple of Mosul is incom­pre­hen­si­bly high. Thou­sands of civil­ians have been killed — no one knows exact­ly how many peo­ple have died, how many bod­ies remain crushed under the rub­ble of the once-vibrant city, how many whole fam­i­lies have been lost, how many chil­dren have been orphaned. A mil­lion or so were dis­placed from their homes; hun­dreds of thou­sands of weak­ened, mal­nour­ished Moslaw­is, many of them psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly dev­as­tat­ed from years under ISIS rule, are still lan­guish­ing in ill-equipped camps in the desert out­side the city, where tem­per­a­tures rou­tine­ly soar to 120 degrees.

No one can be sure yet of which mil­i­tary forces fight­ing in and around Mosul were respon­si­ble for exact­ly which civil­ian deaths. Cer­tain­ly ISIS killed many peo­ple — direct­ly and indi­rect­ly. There is lit­tle ques­tion, how­ev­er, that the Unit­ed States caused a major share of the car­nage. On May 19 the Trump admin­is­tra­tion announced that its new tac­tic in both Mosul and Raqqa would be to sur­round and anni­hi­late” ISIS; this trans­lat­ed, as expect­ed, into a cas­cad­ing esca­la­tion of vio­lence against the trapped civil­ian populations.

This tac­tic of anni­hi­la­tion,” accord­ing to Inter­na­tion­al Cri­sis Group’s long­time Mid­dle East direc­tor Joost Hilter­mann, could be relat­ed to the high­er pro­por­tion of for­eign mil­i­tants among the remain­ing ISIS forces in Mosul as Iraqi ISIS fight­ers may have been able to sim­ply melt back into local com­mu­ni­ties. And, accord­ing to Hilter­mann, the Pen­ta­gon is espe­cial­ly con­cerned about these for­eign mil­i­tants: They believe , the pri­ma­ry threat posed by sur­viv­ing ISIS fight­ers derives from those who came from Europe and could return there to engage in acts of violence.”

Their assess­ment was like­ly based on the per­ceived threat those for­eign fight­ers might pose to Amer­i­cans as well as Euro­peans — while lack­ing any real con­cern about Iraqis. If, as is like­ly, for­eign fight­ers are not the main prob­lem, and ISIS is in fact an orga­ni­za­tion with what Hilter­mann iden­ti­fies as pri­mar­i­ly Syr­i­an, and espe­cial­ly Iraqi roots and lead­er­ship,” then the anni­hi­la­tion tac­tic is a clas­sic exam­ple of priv­i­leg­ing U.S. and Euro­pean lives at the expense of Arab lives. As Hilter­mann points out, erad­i­cat­ing ISIS fight­ers, with atten­dant high costs in civil­ian lives and destruc­tion of civil­ian areas, would do lit­tle to erad­i­cate the polit­i­cal sen­ti­ments that gave rise to ISIS in the first place, and pave the way for the rise of ISIS ver­sion 2.0 — pos­si­bly an even more vir­u­lent form.”

The Pen­ta­gon claims it has been respon­si­ble only for a total of 603 acci­den­tal” civil­ian deaths since the entire anti-ISIS air war began back in 2014. But Air­wars, a British-based orga­ni­za­tion that tracks civil­ian deaths from the air war in both Iraq and Syr­ia, esti­mates that U.S. coali­tion airstrikes killed 529 to 744 civil­ians in June alone — about 52 per­cent more than in the month before.

And that air war has destroyed much of the city as well. While ISIS sui­cide truck bombs and explo­sive devices caused sig­nif­i­cant dam­age since its seizure of the city in 2014, it has been pri­mar­i­ly the U.S. airstrikes of the last nine months or so that large­ly reduced west Mosul to rub­ble. Accord­ing to Air­wars’ report, in June the U.S. coali­tion fired rough­ly 4,100 muni­tions in sup­port of oper­a­tions to lib­er­ate Mosul — a 21 per­cent rise from May. Those strikes were focused on an increas­ing­ly small num­ber of neigh­bor­hoods, with Coali­tion offi­cials con­firm­ing that Iraqi airstrikes in Mosul had ceased by June 20 or ear­li­er. Most recent heavy destruc­tion in the city from incom­ing strikes has there­fore been a result of U.S. and allied actions.”

The infra­struc­ture of the city, espe­cial­ly on the west­ern side, is in ruins. The Unit­ed Nations esti­mates it will cost over $1 bil­lion just to sta­bi­lize Mosul with the most basic lev­els of repair to the elec­tric­i­ty, water, and san­i­ta­tion infra­struc­ture and begin­ning to reopen schools and hos­pi­tals. Full rebuild­ing of the city will take bil­lions more. Mosul — and poten­tial­ly Raqqa in the not-too-dis­tant future — is repli­cat­ing the icon­ic role played by Ben Tre in Viet­nam, where a U.S. major infa­mous­ly assert­ed in 1968, we had to destroy the vil­lage in order to save it.”

Into the future

Destroy­ing the vil­lage — or in this case the city — will cer­tain­ly not end ter­ror­ism, nor will it mean the end of ISIS. Despite — and at least part­ly because of — Wash­ing­ton’s almost 16 years of war against ter­ror, ter­ror­ism is doing just fine. Mil­i­tary force does­n’t work against ter­ror­ism. In the last sev­er­al years ISIS expand­ed from a vicious ter­ror­ist orga­ni­za­tion to include a con­ven­tion­al mil­i­tary force capa­ble of seiz­ing and hold­ing ter­ri­to­ry and peo­ple. It’s that lat­ter com­po­nent that the cur­rent U.S.-led mil­i­tary coali­tion is able to chal­lenge, and cer­tain­ly dimin­ish­ing or end­ing that con­ven­tion­al mil­i­tary capac­i­ty is impor­tant. It is pri­mar­i­ly impor­tant for the hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple forced to live under the extrem­ist vio­lence of ISIS, and the loss of a land-based caliphate will under­mine at least some of ISIS’ abil­i­ty to attract and recruit inter­na­tion­al sup­port­ers. For ISIS, the sym­bol­ism of los­ing Mosul also means the loss of the site where ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Bagh­da­di first announced the cre­ation of their so-called caliphate in 2014: Mosul’s his­toric al-Nuri Mosque lies in rubble.

But that is a far cry from end­ing ISIS, let alone end­ing ter­ror­ism. Because the range of strate­gies that have at least some chance of defeat­ing ter­ror­ism — all of which are medi­um- to long-term, all of which involve polit­i­cal, diplo­mat­ic, human­i­tar­i­an, eco­nom­ic and oth­er approach­es, and all of which require reject­ing mil­i­tary options — are still mar­gin­al­ized, de-pri­or­i­tized and under-funded.

The rebuild­ing of the shat­tered city is going to take a lot more than mon­ey. With around half the pop­u­la­tion still dis­placed, res­i­dents who bare­ly sur­vived the years of ISIS con­trol and the months of fight­ing and airstrikes will need sup­port for years to come. Many are injured or ill and will need exten­sive med­ical care, many chil­dren are mal­nour­ished. Many kids have been with­out school for long peri­ods, and many oth­ers have grown up in ISIS-run schools shaped by mil­i­taris­tic, vio­lent pro­pa­gan­da. Post-trau­mat­ic stress is almost cer­tain­ly endem­ic through­out the population.

Beyond the phys­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal, rebuild­ing any lev­el of social cohe­sion remains an enor­mous chal­lenge. The destruc­tion of the city means that pro­duc­tion, com­merce and jobs are gone for an indef­i­nite peri­od, and there are no means of liveli­hood. There are divi­sions among sur­vivors, with anger toward those per­ceived to have col­lab­o­rat­ed with ISIS report­ed­ly lead­ing to violence. 

The costs will be enor­mous — and it remains uncer­tain where even a small part of that fund­ing will come from.

The Unit­ed States’ his­to­ry regard­ing the rebuild­ing, or even assist­ing in the rebuild­ing, of cities and coun­tries it has destroyed in war is a shame­ful pat­tern of aban­don­ment and lack of account­abil­i­ty. The war is waged to con­sol­i­date a vic­to­ry against a U.S.-identified bad guy, and the dev­as­tat­ing impact on the local pop­u­la­tion is sim­ply ignored, rel­e­gat­ed to the side­line of unfor­tu­nate col­lat­er­al dam­age.” That pat­tern showed up pow­er­ful­ly across Iraq fol­low­ing the inva­sion and occu­pa­tion of the coun­try and fol­low­ing the bomb­ing of crit­i­cal infra­struc­ture already weak­ened by a dozen years of crip­pling eco­nom­ic sanc­tions. For years, elec­tric­i­ty beyond a cou­ple of hours a day, and access to clean water, remained out of reach for most Iraqis. For many, those depri­va­tions remain today. The pat­tern is already repeat­ing itself in Mosul.

The Trump administration’s rejec­tion of nation build­ing” extends far beyond a need­ed cri­tique of past exam­ples — Trump’s def­i­n­i­tion seems to imply an absolute refusal to pro­vide any sup­port for any of the peo­ple, cities, coun­tries dev­as­tat­ed by U.S. wars. Unit­ed States fund­ing for UN human­i­tar­i­an agen­cies may be reduced to his­toric low num­bers. And the capac­i­ty and will­ing­ness of the U.S.-backed Iraqi gov­ern­ment to pro­vide for the rebuild­ing of Mosul, let alone for the whole range of war-rav­aged towns and cities across the coun­try, remains in question.

For now, the Iraqi gov­ern­ment is cel­e­brat­ing the end of ISIS con­trol of Mosul. But it remains the same Shi’a-dom­i­nat­ed sec­tar­i­an gov­ern­ment that in the years since the U.S. inva­sion and occu­pa­tion began in 2003 has dis­crim­i­nat­ed against and seri­ous­ly oppressed Iraq’s large Sun­ni minor­i­ty. This dis­crim­i­na­tion has dimin­ished some­what since the elec­tion of Haider al-Aba­di, the cur­rent Iraqi prime min­is­ter, in 2014, but it remains a con­tin­u­ing prob­lem. Shi’a sec­tar­i­an­ism was one of the fac­tors that led to the view among numer­ous Sun­ni Iraqis that as bad as ISIS was, it was some­how a less­er evil than the exist­ing government.

It is clear that at least pow­er­ful fig­ures in Iraq still har­bor sus­pi­cions of Mosul’s peo­ple. Accord­ing to the Mid­dle East Insti­tute’s Charles Lis­ter, even before the final defeat of ISIS in the city, reports are sur­fac­ing from Mosul of Iraqi secu­ri­ty forces engaged in orga­nized extra­ju­di­cial exe­cu­tions and tor­ture, seem­ing­ly dri­ven by sec­tar­i­an revenge. Sev­er­al leaked videos showed Iraqi forces throw­ing live men off a cliff, before rid­dling their bod­ies with auto­mat­ic gun­fire. The scene eeri­ly resem­bled some of ISIS’ mass exe­cu­tions of 2014, in which Iraqi sol­diers were exe­cut­ed and thrown into a riv­er.” Human Rights Watch ana­lysts report­ed sim­i­lar atroc­i­ties after the Iraqi gov­ern­men­t’s claim that Mosul had been lib­er­at­ed.”

Some in the mil­i­tary appear to hold the peo­ple of Mosul them­selves respon­si­ble for the dev­as­ta­tion ISIS wrought in the city. Accord­ing to the Asso­ci­at­ed Press,

The peo­ple here have always had a rebel­lious nature, so they should take some respon­si­bil­i­ty for what has hap­pened,” said Maj. Imad Has­san, a fed­er­al police offi­cer from Bagh­dad. … I hope this destruc­tion teach­es them their les­son,” he said. 

That does­n’t bode well for Mosul being able to rely on sup­port from the Iraqi gov­ern­ment and mil­i­tary to pro­tect and rebuild their city.

The ques­tion of how and by whom Mosul will be gov­erned also remains uncer­tain. The U.S.-backed Shi’a-dom­i­nat­ed Iraqi mil­i­tary now claim­ing cred­it for defeat­ing ISIS are the same mil­i­tary forces who dropped their weapons and fled, leav­ing the large­ly Sun­ni civil­ian pop­u­la­tion of Mosul to face the vio­lence of ISIS — and undoubt­ed­ly many Mosul res­i­dents still feel betrayed. Although not as dom­i­nant as the role of the Syr­i­an Kur­dish YPG fight­ers in Raqqa, the Iraqi Kur­dish pesh­mer­ga forces from the semi-autonomous Iraqi Kur­dis­tan played a major role in the mil­i­tary attack on Mosul over the last year. The Iraqi nation­al gov­ern­ment and the Kur­dish region­al author­i­ties have already clashed over the ques­tion of the post-ISIS gov­er­nance of Mosul, with Kur­dish lead­ers hint­ing they might try to absorb the over­whelm­ing­ly Arab city into the Kur­dish region. While Mosul is in north­ern Iraq, it has nev­er been part of the rec­og­nized Kur­dish region. But the fight­ing of recent years has upend­ed many ear­li­er assumptions.

What is required, but not yet on any offi­cial agen­da, is the need to entire­ly re-think and reject the notion of mil­i­tary solu­tions to ter­ror­ism.” There sim­ply isn’t one.

A real solu­tion to ter­ror­ism — not a fake mil­i­tary answer — requires some­thing very dif­fer­ent. And it won’t hap­pen fast. What does that look like? It means cre­at­ing a real nego­ti­at­ing process aimed at diplo­mat­ic rather than mil­i­tary solu­tions. It means pres­sur­ing U.S. allies Sau­di Ara­bia, the UAE, Qatar and oth­ers to stop arm­ing and financ­ing ISIS and oth­er extrem­ist fight­ers direct­ly or indi­rect­ly. It means pres­sur­ing the Iraqi gov­ern­ment — by threat­en­ing to with­hold the U.S. mon­ey, arms, train­ing and diplo­mat­ic sup­port it relies on to remain in pow­er — to end its lega­cy of sec­tar­i­an­ism. And to press oth­er U.S. allies — includ­ing the Iraqi Kur­dish region­al gov­ern­ment and oth­ers — toward nego­ti­a­tions rather than proxy wars in Iraq. It means begin­ning a con­ver­sa­tion, even if the real­i­ty is far in the future, about the need for a real arms embar­go on all sides. And it means a mas­sive invest­ment — of high-lev­el atten­tion, diplo­mat­ic exper­tise and, yes, huge amounts of mon­ey through the Unit­ed Nations — into respond­ing to the human­i­tar­i­an dis­as­ter that is today’s Mosul. 

But all of that remains in the future. For the moment, airstrikes and some fight­ing con­tin­ue in the cen­ter of Mosul, though it appears all but cer­tain that ISIS con­trol of the city is end­ed. For the peo­ple who once lived there, rebuild­ing their lives seems very far away. The Asso­ci­at­ed Press report­ed one Mosul sur­vivor’s view.

Hiyam Mohammed hid in her home with her fam­i­ly on the edge of the Old City through­out the fight. They could see the ceme­tery from their house.

Some days the funer­als last­ed from dawn into the night. There were so many bod­ies piled up, it looked like a hill,” she said. I thought I was going crazy see­ing this. They did­n’t even have time to wash the dead.”

She said the only way to jus­tice is if the [Iraqi] gov­ern­ment and [U.S.] coali­tion pay com­pen­sa­tion to those who lost rel­a­tives or property.

The gov­ern­ment brought Daesh to us,” she said, refer­ring to sec­tar­i­an rule that fueled Sun­ni extrem­ism and cor­rup­tion that weak­ened the coun­try’s secu­ri­ty forces. This mess is God’s revenge for that.” 

Phyl­lis Ben­nis is a fel­low of the Insti­tute for Pol­i­cy Stud­ies. Her most recent book is the 2018 edi­tion of Under­stand­ing the Pales­tin­ian-Israeli Con­flict: A Primer.
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