Putting the Battle for Mosul in Context

It has been over two years since the Islamic State sacked the Iraqi city of Mosul and captured much of the Sunni Arab regions in northern and western Iraq. The country remains mired in military conflict and political instability. This week Iraqi forces, with the backing of the American led coalition, are currently fighting to re-take Mosul. They hope that doing so will deliver a serious blow to the Islamic State. However, this battle, while extremely important, will not put an end to the crisis in Iraq or the threat of the Islamic State. To understand why, one must put the battle into its larger political context. In this post, I will try do just that and then attempt to provide a brief look ahead at the short, medium, and long term repercussions for the crisis in Iraq.


Iraq is currently divided into three distinct regions: Iraq proper, which is governed by Baghdad; the Kurdish autonomous zone; and the areas controlled by the Islamic State. Militarily, the Iraqi Armed Forces, with significant aid from popular mobilization forces (al-hashd al-sha‘bi), Kurdish Peshmerga, and American-led coalition forces, have been advancing steadily on the Islamic State’s positions. The Islamic State has been losing territory for over a year, and because of coalition air superiority, has not been able to mass forces for a counter-attack since the Spring of 2015. This success has often come at a steep price. While there has been some token Sunni Arab participation in the popular mobilization forces, they are dominated by sectarian, often Iranian-backed, Shi‘i militias. As these forces advance into Sunni Arab territory, they have clashed with the local populations. Human Rights Watch has “documented summary killings, enforced disappearances, torture, and the destruction of homes” by elements of the popular mobilization forces.[1]     


The current focus of the combined military operations in Iraq is to re-take the city of Mosul. Theoretically, a military operation to re-take the city is fairly straightforward. However, in practice, it has been delayed for some time because it needs to be carried out in a manner that is consistent with the long-term political goals of a unified Iraq. A military assault that defeats the Islamic State while alienating much of the population or creating a humanitarian crisis will ultimately prove counter-productive. Recent Iraqi campaigns to re-take Sunni Arab cities left them in ruins and displaced most of their populations. Those cities had, at most, a few hundred thousand residents each. Mosul has almost two million residents. Thus, if the Iraqi forces employ their previous tactics in Mosul, they will likely trigger an acute humanitarian crisis. There are also fears that disputed areas liberated by the Kurds will be forced into the Kurdish autonomous region against the will of Arabs and non-Kurdish minorities.


American and coalition forces clearly understand this dynamic. In July, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter hosted a defense ministers summit and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry hosted a parallel foreign ministers summit.[2] In both meetings, representatives of the anti-Islamic State coalition emphasized the importance of post-conflict stabilization and development in Sunni Arab sections of Iraq. By doing so, they hope to reassure Iraq’s Sunni Arabs that they have a place in a united Iraq. These efforts face difficult challenges. Atrocities carried out by Kurdish and Shi‘i militias have had a deep impact on Sunni Arabs in Iraq. Some of the Sunni Arab population in Iraq continues to see Shi‘i and Kurdish forces as greater evils than the Islamic State. It is difficult to determine the extent of this sentiment, but there are some troubling signs. A recent, un-scientific poll conducted by al-Jazeera found that “72 percent of respondents said they supported the Islamic State over the Shia militias in the battle of Fallujah; 84 percent said that the Iranian occupation posed a greater threat than the Islamic State; and 86 percent said the goal of the Fallujah campaign was to consolidate Iranian occupation of Iraq rather than to fight terrorism.”[3] As un-scientific as these numbers may be, if they bear even a passing resemblance to reality, they signal a difficult road ahead. If Iraq’s Sunni Arabs continue to view the Iraqi government as a greater threat than the Islamic State, then retaking Mosul will represent little more than a tactical victory. And the strategic landscape will be ripe for the reemergence of the Islamic State or a similar group in the near future. 


Over the long-term, the anti-Islamic State coalition’s goal of convincing Sunni Arabs to support the Iraqi government faces several structural political and economic problems. First, for several centuries, Sunni Arabs formed Iraq’s social, political, and economic elite. In 2003, the American-led invasion of Iraq disrupted the country’s system of rule, leaving Iraq’s Shi‘i majority in control. This created a disparity between the historical positions of Iraq’s Sunni Arabs and the possibilities they face under an even semi-democratic Iraq. As a result, they have been ambivalent at best about their prospects under the current regime in Baghdad. That situation will continue to provide openings for groups such as the Islamic State well into the future.


The two most widely discussed solutions to this problem are: (1) to de-centralize the government in Iraq, giving the Sunni Arab regions much more autonomy; and (2) to create a power-sharing system in Baghdad that would grant the Sunni Arabs more power. However, Iraq’s main oil fields are in the Shi‘i south and the Kurdish north. Thus, in a decentralized system, Baghdad would have to finance the Sunni Arab regions while agreeing to limit its political control over them. Such an arrangement is unlikely to be popular in non-Sunni Arab regions. Furthermore, since 2003, Iran has worked to install its allies in Baghdad. It has significant influence in many of the most important ministries, including the Ministry of Interior. Because Iran views Iraq as part of a broader regional struggle with Sunni Arab powers, particularly Saudi Arabia, it is likely to block policies that cede power to Sunni Arabs.


To put it succinctly, the crisis in Iraq is not going to disappear after the liberation of Mosul and as long as the political and military conflicts in Iraq remain unresolved, Iraq will continue to be a source for terrorism and mass migration. Retaking Mosul is a vital first step in alleviating these problems, but we should be under no illusions that it will end the crisis in Iraq, or that the U.S. can refocus its attention elsewhere.



[1] https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/07/31/iraq-ban-abusive-militias-mosul-operation

[2] http://www.militarytimes.com/story/military/war-on-is/2016/07/20/defense-foreign-ministers-plan-next-steps-against-isis/87339754/

[3] http://carnegieendowment.org/syriaincrisis/63834

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Remarks on Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds

The following remarks were delivered by Michael Noonan at the FPRI’s The Yellow Birds booktalk discussion on Monday, February3, 2014.

We are once again both pleased and proud to be taking part in the Philadelphia Free Library’s wonderful One Book, One Philadelphia program. We’d like to especially thank Marie and Joseph Field for their leadership and support for that initiative. For those of you who don’t know about it the purpose of this annual occasion is to “promote reading, literacy, and libraries, and to encourage the entire greater Philadelphia area to come together through reading and discussing a single book.” Last year we were delighted to have had a panel discussion about human trafficking relating to the book A Budha in the Attic by Julia Otsuka. We look forward to taking part in this series for many years to come, especially when the books deal with important topics relating to civic literacy.

For those of you who don’t know about us the Foreign Policy Research Institute was established in 1955 at the University of Pennsylvania and became independent in 1970. We are an independent, non-partisan 501(c)(3) that focuses on research, publication, and education in the realm of civic literacy and world affairs. We hold roughly 50 events per year both in Philadelphia and across the country. Some events, such as tonight’s, are free and open to the public while others are a benefit of membership.

Affiliated with us are 90 scholars in the United States and abroad who cover many areas of expertise across a range of academic and analytical approaches. They also come from myriad political persuasions. As our President Alan Luxenberg likes to say, ask ten of our scholars about any given topic and you are likely to get eleven different answers.

I am delighted to be joined this evening by Gregory J.W. Urwin and Ann Marie Roepke. Dr. Urwin is professor of history at Temple University where he specializes in military history. The author of nine books, his work spans from the American War of Independence through the Second World War. The recipient of numerous prizes and awards he is the President of the Society for Military History, a fellow in both the Company of Military Historians and the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, and is general editor of the Campaigns and Commanders Series from University of Oklahoma Press. I’ve asked Greg to address the topic of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) through the lens of American military history.

Ann Marie Roepke is pursuing a Ph.D. in psychology at the University of Pennsylvania under the mentorship of Dr. Martin Seligman. She studies both clinical psychology and positive psychology. Her research interests lie at the intersection of these topics: how do some people manage to survive, and even thrive, despite challenging circumstances? How can people mobilize their own strengths to help them overcome problems? How might people change for the better after the lowest lows and highest highs of their lives? I’ve asked her to address the topics of both PTSD and conversely the oftentimes less discussed topic of Post-Traumatic Growth.

For those of you who have read the book you are sure to know why I’ve asked Greg and Ann Marie to address their topics. Originally Phillip Carter from the Center for a New American Security, a fellow Iraq veteran, was supposed to join us, but he had a family scheduling conflict that wouldn’t allow him to train up from Washington. In addition, my colleague David Danelo, a Marine veteran of Al Anbar, regrets not being able to be here. He will have a new book out in a year or so called The Return which deals with the topic of veterans reintegrating into civil society.

As for myself, I thought I would kick off the discussion tonight because I am not only a veteran of the Iraq war, but I also happened to serve in Western Ninewah Province where the war portion of The Yellow Birds is set.

But before I get to that let’s talk about the title of the book. It comes from a famous marching cadence, which goes as follows,

A Yellow Bird,

with a yellow bill,

was sitting on

my window sill,

I lured him in,

with a piece of bread,

and then I smashed, his fucking head.

Now some will hear this and gasp. This sounds psychotic. But it is all about instilling in service members a controlled sense of aggression that can be unleashed in war. Why? Because soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines must be taken from civil society and be re-enculturated into the military ethos. They must, as the recent Marine Corps commercial says, be able to move towards the sounds of chaos. Individuals must be trained to do exactly those things that people should instinctively avoid trying to do. Unfortunately until all men and women are angels or there is some great evolution amongst humanity then war will be a part of the human condition. That is not to celebrate it. We can curse it, but we have to cope with it, too.

Now getting back to the setting of the book. Western Ninewah is largely irrelevant because the book is really about the realities of war and how it affects those who fight it and those who experience it first-hand. Powers’ Al Tafar, after all, is a fictional city. It is a blend of two areas where he served: Mosul and Tal’Afar. I know both of these spots quite well from my time serving as a mobilized Army Reservist on a Military Transition Team embedded with an Iraqi infantry battalion just outside of Tal’Afar in 2006-2007 about a year or two after Powers’ tour in the area.

Powers’ description of the area rang very much true to me. In a piece that I wrote for The American Interest in 2007 I described the area as the following:

Approximately forty miles west of Mosul, forty miles southwest of the Iraqi-Syrian border, and fifty miles south of Turkey, Tal Afar sits in a saddle between two ridgelines along the Mosul-Sinjar highway. When you walk through the smaller villages and take in the surrounding hills and plains, you get the feeling that, aside from the occasional modern artifact like a satellite dish, the view has not changed much since Jonah’s famous fish-detoured journey to Ninevah (located on the east side of present-day Mosul) some time ago. Wheat fields, shepherds and their flocks of sheep are everywhere; for nine months of the year the pallete is made up of hazy golds, soft gray greens, all set in a sea of dark ochre, but the emerald greens of the other three months are best described as dreamlike. While not “as hot” as other parts of Iraq or Kuwait, northern Iraq still features temperatures that range more than a hundred degrees Fahrenheit, from 120-plus degrees in the summer to the low- to mid-20s in the winter. Frequent summer sandstorms, mud-producing heavy autumn and winter rains and the occasional snowfall make Ninewa a war zone conducive to both cursing and zoning out. With all due respect to W.C. Fields, there are definitely worse places to live than Philadelphia.

Privates Bartle and Murphy and Sergeant Sterling are the main characters. Sterling is the grizzled veteran while Bartle and Murphy are the young, unexperienced soldiers. Powers illustrates well the shifts between abject boredom and the dizzying action, fear and confusion that combat produces. He also shows well how the stresses of combat effect people differently. Most poignantly in his telling of how Private Murphy snaps and the efforts that Sergeant Sterling and Private Bartle went through to recover Murph’s body due to the circumstances and to dispose of it in a way that they felt disserving—rather than it being discovered naked and mutilated by the insurgents.

This particular part of the story, I felt, illustrated well the fact that downrange soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines are at the tactical level first and foremost fighting for one another. Cohesion, or the lack thereof, matters. Sometimes this cohesion can be negative—as in his illustration where Sergeant Sterling kills the Iraqi who helps them bring Murph’s body to the Tigris River.

In war things happen that can’t be unseen, unheard, or unsmelled. Powers’ discussion of Murph and Sterling snapping and Bartle’s PTSD touches upon this. I think anyone that has served in combat has had some experience with some form of PTSD whether it be in dreams, or something happening that triggers it, or coping with not having adrenaline coursing through one’s veins. Each individual reacts differently to the stresses and how much of them that they can take.

Overall I think that Powers covers all of this extremely well. However, I would caution to not draw broad sweeping generalizations from this novel. I do worry that some will read this and extrapolate too much from it or try to apply it to all veterans. That would be a mistake. Veterans don’t seek pity, most simply want some form of understanding or acceptance.

While I am extremely happy that the issue of PTSD has been given a lot of attention from medical professionals and from the media and public to help reduce stigmas associated with it, but I also fear some of the narratives surrounding it such as was found in the infamous “The Veteran” tape from Penn State University. Hopefully in conversations like this one that we are having tonight we can move past some of that. I think that both Greg and Ann Marie’s comments will usefully paint a more detailed and nuanced picture of America’s history with PTSD and Post-Traumatic Growth and with the psychology of the issues here.


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