Iraq's Coming Catastrophic Success

by ANDREW E. HARROD November 6, 2016

The terms "catastrophic success" and a "war after a war" could soon be used to describe the mission to liberate Mosul, Iraq, from the Islamic State. Institute for Near East Policy panelist and Washington Institute Kahn Fellow Michael Eisenstadt summarized his outlook and that of his fellow panelists, who emphasized that keeping Mesopotamia's peace is far more difficult than any military victory there.

Joining Eisenstadt for "The Road to Mosul: Reports from the Field" was United States Marines Corps Brigadier General William Mullen III, who described his recent command of Iraq's anti-ISIS coalition airstrikes. He said that he foresaw little difficulty in the mission to defeat the ISIS jihadists, for "they can't defend themselves from our airstrikes. If they try to fight back against Iraqi security forces and we identify them, they are done." After making an attempt to hold Ramadi, ISIS fighters retreated from Fallujah after relatively light combat, indicating that the group would offer little resistance in Mosul.

More troubled about the long-term fight, Mullen said he worried that the "apocalyptic cult" in the Islamic State's ideology "is not going anywhere. In some ways, it seems to me to be getting worse. You have to destroy the ideology. Our efforts to do so have been partially successful, but in more than one way, we don't speak that language. It has to be the Muslim faith saying this is not us; this is not what Islam is about." Thankfully, the bitter truth about the Islamic State's "caliphate" has recently reduced the group's recruiting appeal. "We are using folks that have seen what the reality is to further discredit what ISIS is doing," Mullen added.

Joining in the emphasis on hearts and minds, Washington Institute Defense Fellow Daniel Green reflected upon his extensive military service in Iraq and said that the "central heart of this is the political union in Iraq." Amidst Iraq's three major populations of Shiite Arabs, Sunni Arabs and Kurds, there is a "political dilemma between a highly unitary government, unitary state and at least three major population groups that want some degree of decentralization," he added. Throughout Iraq's history, these groups have been "simultaneously victims and oppressors. There is not a lot of trust between all of these various groups."

Underground insurgency would follow a conventional defeat for ISIS, meaning that "whether it goes away is dependent on how the Iraqi government treats its people long-term, because everyone is hedging their bets," Green said. Iraqi Sunnis alienated by the repressive Shiite domination of Iraq's central government "can turn on ISIS again later on if they want to do so, or they can turn it off if they feel that that is in their best interests." On the positive side, Iraqi Sunnis "have now had this incredibly searing experience of ISIS. Compared to whatever poor governance or transgressions of the central government, it doesn't compare to what ISIS has done to them."

Iraqi Shiites also present unique challenges to political stability in the form of the Iranian-supported Popular Mobilization Units (or al-Hashd al-Shaabi) that arose in 2014 to counter the Islamic State's advance after the Iraqi military collapsed. About these Shiite militias, Mullen commented, "The Iraqi government is taking one alligator at a time. The alligator climbing into the canoe with them is ISIS. They are focusing on that. I think the next alligator to focus on is those Shia militia groups. They understand very clearly they have to get control of them."

Asserting such control will be difficult, as indicated by the PMUs that are advancing into Fallujah against government orders, and the PMU leaders' advocating PMU assumption of internal security duties from Iraqi government forces. Mullen pointed out that Iraq's Shiite majority "see these Shia militia groups as their heroes ... because when the Iraqi security forces fell apart in 2014, those Shia militia groups held their ground, and they lost a lot of people doing it." With Iranian support, the PMUs are also "better supplied and more motivated to get what they want" than Iraqi government forces.

"The Iraqi leaders are trying to figure out, ‘How do we put Humpty Dumpty back together again?'" Green noted, after having welcomed the PMUs and their Iranian backers. He added that many Iraqi officials now wonder how to uninvite the Iranians, who, to some degree, treat many Iraqis as a "vassal state - almost a subjugated state." Meanwhile, "Iraqi security forces - especially the longer this goes on - are tired, and the Iraqi government has expended enormous resources, in many cases resources they don't really have, for this fight."

In order to counter the Iranian influence, Green advocated using American military assistance to strengthen the Iraqi military, but Mullen interjected that this task "is a generational thing. You have to change their culture." He pointed out that the current Iraqi security forces practiced 30 years of "horrendous habits" under the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, and added that the culture of corruption there is "just absolutely stifling. Ghost soldiers are an enormous problem." He also described the issues of Iraqi officers' drawing pay for nonexistent soldiers as well as the militant divisions that sometimes fight with perhaps 30 percent of their reported strength.

Mullen observed problems even in Iraqi Kurdistan, which is sometimes seen as a lone beacon of stability in the Iraqi quagmire. Of the Kurds, he said, "They think they are a separate country until they need something from the government of Iraq." In a 1996 graduate school paper, he had commented that while the Kurdish people have long dreamed of their independence, "they couldn't stop fighting themselves long enough to actually pull together and form a country."

Eisenstadt cited Hussein's repressive Baath Party as an example of how unsolved political problems create a "pattern in Iraqi politics of people who are marginalized or pushed underground com[ing] back." The Baathists first successfully seized power in a 1963 coup, then suffered marginalization before consolidating their rule in 1968 and losing it in the 2003 American-led regime change, whereupon many of them joined Al-Qaeda in Iraq and later ISIS.

In response to a question asking if Iraqis can avoid such problems in the future, Mullen simply said, "I cringe on a daily basis."

A version of this piece also appeared on

Andrew E. Harrod is a freelance researcher and writer who holds a PhD from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and a JD from George Washington University Law School.  He is admitted to the Virginia State Bar.  He has published over 400 articles concerning various political and religious topics at the American Thinker, the Blaze, Breitbart, Capital Research Center, Daily Caller, FrontPage Magazine, Institute on Religion and Democracy, Independent Journal Review, Investigative Project on Terrorism, Jihad Watch, Mercatornet, Philos Project, Religious Freedom Coalition, Washington Times, and World, among others. He is a fellow with the Lawfare Project, an organization combating the misuse of human rights law against Western societies.  He can be followed on twitter @AEHarrod.

blog comments powered by Disqus

FSM Archives

10 year FSM Anniversary