- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London.
As airstrikes continue to shake the ground and small, sharp firefights pulse between Iraqi forces and the few dozen remaining Islamic State holdouts in a shrinking pocket of west Mosul, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared victory on Monday.
Wearing the black uniform of the U.S.-trained Counter-Terrorism Service — which spearheaded much of the fighting in Mosul — Abadi announced “the end and the failure and the collapse of the terrorist state of falsehood” in the city where ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi just three years ago proclaimed a new caliphate.
The historic al-Nuri Mosque, where Baghdadi made his July 2014 proclamation, is now a pile of rubble, destroyed by his fighters as Iraqi forces pressed closer in recent days. Much of the western half of Mosul is in ruins, the product of weeks of house-by-house fighting and hundreds of U.S. airstrikes that dropped bridges and flattened apartment blocks.
As he took a victory lap, the prime minister acknowledged that the fighting elsewhere in Iraq is far from over. The next mission, he said, is to “create stability, to build and clear Daesh cells and that requires an intelligence and security effort, and the unity which enabled us to fight Daesh,” using an alternate name for ISIS.
Lt. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, commanding general of U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria said in a statement on Monday that the loss of Mosul was “a decisive blow” for the group. But he cautioned that there should be “no mistake, this victory alone does not eliminate ISIS and there is still a tough fight ahead.”
The challenge is immense. About 900,000 residents have been displaced during the fight for the city, and thousands of civilians are believed to have been killed. In recent days, ISIS suicide bombers have targeted groups of civilians fleeing the fighting. Officials say that they expect that to continue not only around Mosul — where hundreds of U.S. troops are deployed to advise and assist Iraqi forces — but in other places where the group is being squeezed in Iraq’s north, while Baghdad is bracing for the group to go underground and resort to terrorist tactics in the capital.
Gen. Townsend, slated to end his yearlong tour in Iraq in September, swiped at the sectarian divide which plagues Iraq, saying that “it is time for all Iraqis to unite to ensure ISIS is defeated across the rest of Iraq and that the conditions that led to the rise of ISIS in Iraq are not allowed to return again.”
But a recent Human Rights Watch report signaled more trouble ahead, as the sectarian issues which plague the country — overshadowed for a time by the brutality of ISIS rule in much of the north and west of Iraq — continue to fester. There have been multiple reports of the mostly Shiite security forces beating and detaining Sunni men and boys fleeing the fighting in the city, the kind of behavior that drove some Sunnis to turn to ISIS in the first place.
After Mosul, the Iraqi army still has to clear ISIS strongholds in the nearby cities of Tal Afar and Hawija, cities that have been surrounded by Iranian-backed Shiite militias and Kurdish forces for weeks. It remains unclear what role those forces will play in the upcoming fights.
The Counter Terrorism Service will likely play a leading role in those fights, as it has in Mosul, Ramadi, and elsewhere. The U.S.-trained unt of about 17,000 soldiers reports directly to prime minister Abadi, making it easier for the U.S. to train and supply its troops, avoiding much of the Baghdad government’s parochial interests and bureaucracy. But the CTS has paid a heavy price for its successes, suffering a crippling 40 percent casualty rate during the fight for Mosul.
That number was made public earlier this year in Pentagon budget documents which requested $1.2 billion equip, train, and recruit 20,000 CTS personnel over the next three years.
The changeover in U.S. leadership this summer comes at a critical time in Iraq, as the Abadi government hovers on the verge of destroying ISIS as group that holds large cities where it can extract taxes from the locals. That will likely lead to a return to the hit-and-run tactics honed during the U.S. occupation, and a grinding, low-intensity battle stretching over much of the Sunni-dominated parts of the country.
Washington’s appetite for a long-term presence in the country is also uncertain, as president Trump’s “America First” policy calls into question the viability of long, costly deployments abroad.
Townsend has worked with Iraqi leadership since the start of the fight for Mosul in November, but he is preparing to hand off command to U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Paul Funk. In another major leadership turnover, later this week the commanding general of U.S. and coalition ground troops in Iraq and Syria, Maj. Gen. Joseph Martin, is handing off command to Maj. Gen. Pat White, commander of the 1st Armored Division, whose headquarters are taking over from Martin’s 1st Infantry Division headquarters.
Photo Credit: FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images