June 10, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: One Year Since Mosul

• Much has been written about what the Islamic State has and has not accomplished in the year since it seized the city of Mosul, Iraq

• Less examined are the assumptions of the anti-Islamic State coalition that have not come to pass, despite greatly increased resources and effort

• None of these assumptions—that the Iraq military would be reformed simply by being re-trained and re-equipped; that Iraq’s Sunni population would rise up en masse against the Islamic State; and that countering the Islamic State’s social media narrative would be effective—have been realized a year later

• If the coalition does not replace these assumptions with more realistic goals, next year will bring yet another tragic anniversary for the people in Iraq and Syria living under the Islamic State’s dominion.


It has been exactly one year since the group that became the so-called Islamic State announced its control of Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq. In the 365 days since, the group has expanded and contracted, while the people under its control have suffered and struggled to survive. The group’s list of accomplishments since June 10, 2014 is as long as it is tragic. Thousands have died at the hands of the group, demographics have been altered, antiquities destroyed, and entire cultures nearly erased. How this has come to pass is less about what the Islamic State has done than what the anti-islamic State coalition has not managed to do. The focus moving forward from this tragic anniversary should be on what is actually correctable and not simply desirable.

Firstly, the Islamic State did not arrive fully formed out of nowhere last June. It has existed in some form or fashion since 2004, with ebbs and flows but never evaporating from Iraq’s arid cities and towns. The 2006-2008 U.S. troop surge did not win a war so much as buy time for societal and governmental changes that never came. The relative peace at various times since the official turnover of authority to the Iraqi government in 2009 must be seen in exactly those terms—as relative. Away from the headlines, the group festered and strengthened, feeding off and exploiting the growing disconnect between the Shi’a majority government and the Sunni minority. The only thing surprising about the fall of Mosul last June was its speed. The sudden takeover of the city was actually years in the making; undoing it will likewise be a multi-year endeavor.

After the shock of Mosul wore off, the anti-Islamic State coalition formed and its success rested upon three key assumptions, none of which have come to pass. Those assumptions were: the Iraqi army could be reset and restored through retraining and reequipping; the Sunni tribes would rise up in a second ‘Awakening’ and fight off the Islamic State; and that countering the group’s message on social media would blunt its appeal.

The first assumption, that the Iraqi military can become an effective national military with a bit more training, has proven to be incorrect. Despite seven years and billions of dollars spent training and equipping the newly reconstituted Iraqi military, several divisions of the force folded last June in the face of a much smaller opponent, surrendering massive amounts of equipment and territory. It is difficult to exaggerate how demoralizing the loss of Mosul was not just to the Iraqi people and military but also to the U.S. policy that was founded for years on the metrics of training the Iraqi army to take over security responsibility for a fundamentally insecure country.

Immediately after the fall of Mosul, the focus was on re-training the Iraqi military, with the ethos of ‘helping them fight their own fight’—ignoring that almost limitless resources had already been thrown at this issue and that the policy had failed every true test. The logistics, non-commissioned officer cadre, and command and control that effective militaries depend upon were always missing from the new Iraqi army. Recent reports of the limited numbers of new Iraqi forces showing up for training with the newly arrived U.S. trainers highlight the false assumption that this is a problem that can be trained away.

The second assumption was that Iraq's Sunnis would once again drive off the insurgents. Part of the relative success of the U.S. military surge in 2006-2008 in Iraq was because of the ‘Sunni Awakening’, or ‘Sahwah’, in which the Sunni tribes of al-Anbar and other provinces rose up in huge numbers and fought the precursor of the Islamic State back into the shadows of Fallujah, Ramadi, and even Mosul. In the aftermath of the fall of Mosul, there was much talk and policy planning about a second ‘Awakening’ that would once again force the group underground.

This assumption fails to incorporate the vast differences between 2006 and 2014-2015. There are not, nor will there be, tens of thousands of U.S. troops to stand on corners with Sahwah members, nor is there the same abundance of training and equipment. The regional sectarian gamesmanship and proxy war is far worse now, leaving Iraq's Sunnis without additional pressure to work with the Shi’a government. But more importantly, there is no hope or trust that standing up to the Islamic State at huge near-term costs will result in any long-term political benefits. If the U.S. circumvents Baghdad to equip and train the Sunnis directly, it will have to abandon or seriously weaken the entire political construct it set up after the fall of Saddam. This is a step too far for the U.S. for many reasons, and so the training has stalled somewhere between Washington and Baghdad. In between the reality and the reluctance, the Islamic State has found sanctuary and room to ‘remain and expand.’

The third assumption is less about the Islamic State in Iraq (and Syria, for that matter) and more about its social media appeal worldwide. Since the fall of Mosul, the group has attracted thousands of supporters and actual members via its social media outreach. Combining highly stylized imagery from Islamic State-controlled areas, including hostage killing and mass executions, with crowdsourced messaging from anonymous online fans, the group has manufactured an outsized image that has the West convulsing. Once the true scale of the group’s social media footprint became apparent, governments across the globe set out to counter the group’s appeal. Interacting with the group’s supporters online, trying to out-snark teenagers or persuade them with reason, governments tried to engage the small but meaningful percentage of people vulnerable to the Islamic State's contradictory message of hate and inclusion.

These efforts have for the most part failed. The Islamic State retains both its ‘jihadi cool’ persona and its ability to connect the merely curious supporters with the actually serious. While governments have sought a one-size-fits-all approach to counter the group's appeal, the Islamic State has embraced the panoply of individual motivations that spur recruitment. For many, it is ideology; for some it is a sense of belonging; for others it is the video game-style violence. The group understands that recruitment is intensely individual and thus experiments with every approach. Such flexibility and nuance is not the hallmark of government, let alone a multi-government coalition with differing goals.

The year since the fall of Mosul has witnessed an increased appreciation of the systemic threat of the Islamic State even if it has not yielded a systemic solution that rests on realistic assumptions. There has been nothing sudden about the rise of the Islamic State, now more than a decade since its inception. The Iraqi military cannot be removed from the system that governs it, and so no amount of training will elevate it to the level required for national efficacy. Iraq’s Sunnis do not trust Baghdad or Washington enough to rise up, especially without the supporting cast that underpinned their first uprising. Lastly, social media is the perfect medium for impulse and passion, and not logic and reason. Governments hoping to counter the narratives of the Islamic State will need to tell a more compelling story. The challenges for the next year require significant shifts in assumptions and commitments.


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