June 27, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: The Fight for Fallujah

• On June 26, the Iraqi government announced that it had retaken Fallujah from the Islamic State

• The Islamic State has suffered military losses, but has thus far avoided a final and decisive defeat 

• Like other cities retaken in the last year, Fallujah is heavily battered and will require long-term reconstruction efforts

• Fallujah will either serve as a positive example in the years to come, or ineffective and divisive governance will guarantee that it is the site of further conflict. 


The military defeat of the so-called Islamic State in Iraq is an eventual certainty, but the ability of the Iraqi government to turn that defeat into a lasting national victory remains uncertain. On June 26, Iraq's prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, traveled to Fallujah to announce that the battle to retake the city was effectively over. The battle for Fallujah is the Islamic State's largest loss to date; Fallujah was the first city over which the group seized control as it grew from a terrorist organization into a proto-terror state. Ever since the days of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the group’s founder, Fallujah has assumed both symbolic and functional importance, and has served as a stronghold just outside of Baghdad.

The Iraqi government has claimed that it killed approximately 1,800 Islamic State fighters in the month-long campaign to retake Fallujah. The number exceeds most estimates of the total fighters remaining in the city as of May 2016. It is difficult to accurately estimate the group's functional fighting strength, as well as the latent popular support that would have allowed such a small group of fighters to hold a large population center for over two years.

While the campaign to retake Fallujah was not easy, it was not the apocalyptic battle some had predicted, given the importance of the city to the Islamic State’s origin story. Following the reclamation of Fallujah, Mosul becomes the final prize left for Baghdad to retake. The importance of Mosul and the fact that it is the Islamic State's last Iraqi stronghold suggests that the group will fight to the death to preserve its claim to a caliphate. It is possible, however, that the group may choose to retreat from Mosul rather than fight for it, thereby maintaining the ability to function as a terrorist group as it rebuilds in the wake of defeat.

While the near-term prospects for the Islamic State in Iraq are dim, its long-term prospects depend on the ability of the Iraqi government to avoid repeating past mistakes. Reclaiming Fallujah is indeed a significant military accomplishment, but it is also a long-term humanitarian and political challenge. If Baghdad can transform a tactical success in Fallujah into a lasting strategic shift towards effective and inclusive governance, it will be a significant break from Iraq's poisonous cycle of victories and setbacks.

More so than military assistance, Iraq will require sustained aid to deal with its battered cities and societal divisions. Despite Prime Minister al-Abadi's announcement that the city has been liberated, the fight for Fallujah will not end with the military battle. 


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