This article originally appeared in The Hill on October 25, 2016 under the title “Iraq, Once Again, Has our Attention.”
Achieving a Lasting Peace After Mosul
In Iraq, all eyes are on Mosul. Yet ongoing insecurity in places previously cleared of ISIS indicates that liberation may not bring lasting peace. Ousting ISIS in the short-term does not necessarily create long-term security.
In Anbar’s Provincial capital, Ramadi, resurgent jihadist activity undermines efforts to build stability or encourage civilian returns. Baghdad and its international partners must ensure lasting peace by training and equipping local police forces, and ensuring they have the capacity to prevent insurgent return.
On Dec. 30, 2015, Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi visited Ramadi to raise the Iraqi flag over the central government building. His visit marked the climax of a months-long operation to expel ISIS from the city center, and celebrated his government’s first major triumph over the jihadists. During the ceremony, three mortars landed nearby, forcing the Prime Minister to make a hasty exit. The next day, ISIS executed 40 civilians caught trying to flee the city. And on Jan. 3, militants briefly seized an Iraqi Army base, even as Baghdad declared that it had captured 80 percent of the city.
Iraqi commanders eventually claimed victory again in Ramadi two months later. However, ongoing violence ever since paints a different picture of post-liberation security. Today, security forces and Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) struggle to keep a lid on resurgent ISIS activity in Ramadi’s outlying districts, while engaging ISIS only 43 miles to the northwest in the town of Hit. On Oct. 1, Iraqi Federal Police confronted militants nine miles outside Ramadi’s center, and seized a factory used for building car bombs; one week later in Albu Nimr district – only 15 miles from where Abadi raised the Iraqi flag last year – PMU elements met heavy ISIS resistance while conducting clearing operations.
Ramadi is not the only cleared area suffering an ISIS relapse. On Sept. 23, the Iraqi Army liberated Sharqat, a strategically important town in Salah al-Din Province. Yet in early October ISIS militants killed five civilians on the town’s outskirts, prompting commanders in Salah al-Din to re-evacuate returned residents. On Sept. 24, ISIS gunmen killed 12 soldiers in a bold raid on several checkpoints in nearby Tikrit, which had ostensibly been cleared in March 2015. Similar scenes have occurred in countless smaller villages surrounding cleared areas.
Every security incident is not extremist resurgence. Unrest will surely plague post-ISIS Iraq. However, a pattern of ISIS re-infiltration indicates that the Iraqi government will struggle to hold areas it has already cleared.
As Iraqi forces and their allies push toward Mosul, security challenges in places like Ramadi, Tikrit, and Sharqat may worsen. The ISIS militants in Mosul will eventually relent, and may disperse south through Anbar Province. Anbar tribal commander Ghassan Ithawi voiced these concerns, demanding that security forces “remain wary and close any loopholes that ISIS could use to infiltrate [the] province” after Mosul operations commence.
Policymakers in Baghdad should not ignore this warning. While fighting intensifies in northern Iraq, the Iraqi Army and counterterrorism units are increasingly overstretched. Commanders should avoid over-committing resources in Mosul lest they lose control in other flashpoints.
Iraq is today fighting a whack-a-mole struggle against ISIS. Since 2003, Ramadi has been seized, lost, and secured six times. It is one of many cities across Iraq that security forces have had to liberate time and again from various insurgencies over the past decade. Mosul is another.
To deal a lasting blow to the jihadists, Iraqi commanders must ensure that liberated areas are also secure in the long-term. Achievement of this goal is a prerequisite for civilian returns and infrastructure reconstruction in cleared territory. Baghdad and its international partners expended significant resources to liberate Ramadi, Sharqat, Tikrit, and other towns like them. Allowing renewed insurgency to shape the peace will negate these efforts.
Iraqi and Kurdish forces are moving swiftly toward Mosul. However, their commanders should not let their momentum blind them to festering conflict elsewhere in Iraq. Baghdad does not have enough soldiers to hold Mosul after ISIS is inevitably defeated. Military overstretch undermines gains already achieved if security forces cannot ensure long-term civilian safety.
Ultimately, most media accounts begin with the line “As Iraqi forces prepare to clear ISIS from….” Yet, few offer plans for achieving lasting peace. Iraq’s international partners must commit greater resources to build security forces in areas outside Mosul. Iraqi leaders should capitalize on the global community’s laser-like attention and solicit its help to ensure local security forces have the capacity and funding to keep previously-cleared areas safe. Without such engagement, Iraq may experience a new phase of violence.