Retired Army Gen. David H. Petraeus has no doubt that the forces bearing down on Mosul will drive out the Islamic State extremists who for two years have controlled what was once Iraq’s second-largest city. The question, he says, is what happens next.
The northern province of Nineveh, of which Mosul is the capital, is one of Iraq’s most diverse regions. Sunni Arabs, who dominated under Saddam Hussein, make up the majority. But there are numerous other ethnic and sectarian groups, many of which are nursing long-standing grievances against one another.
Petraeus warns that a failure to set up governing structures that reflect the region’s diversity and to resolve disputes that are bound to arise could lead to what he has termed Islamic State 3.0.
As commander of U.S.-led forces in Iraq, Petraeus led a troop surge in 2007 and 2008 that restored government control in areas that had fallen to the group’s predecessor, Al Qaeda in Iraq.
Rebellious Sunni Muslim tribesmen played a key role in that campaign. But when Islamic State fighters stormed into Mosul in 2014, they encountered little resistance. Some residents even welcomed the militants because they felt alienated and abused by the Shiite Arab-led government in Baghdad.
Here are excerpts from the conversation.
We are nearly two weeks into the Mosul campaign. How do you think it is going?
I think it’s unfolding in quite a methodical way, frankly. I think this is a textbook example of how you clear the surrounding areas around this very large city that is probably four times the size of any of those that the Iraqi security forces have cleared so far.
Mosul is a city that you know well. What do you expect the fight there to look like?
They’ve had a couple of years to prepare for this, so they have built very fortified positions inside buildings.
They have the trench filled with oil that they’ve lit on fire to obscure the optics on our various manned and unmanned intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets that are overhead.
They’re using suicide bombers in armored vehicles that are made of makeshift armor, so they’re very difficult to stop, although the vast majority of them are being stopped short of their objective.
So it will be traditional urban combat where every house, every structure, every neighborhood has to be painstakingly cleared.
I remember it took us a month to clear the city of Ramadi in February-March of 2007, in the early months of the surge, with great American forces, great assets, overwhelming firepower and everything else.
But there is no question that this battle will be won by the Iraqi security forces. The question is, how long does it take? How much damage is done? How many civilians tragically will be killed?
During the last presidential debate, Donald Trump criticized the country’s leaders for announcing the operation ahead of time. Why would military commanders and the Iraqi government forfeit the element of surprise?
Well I think the prime minister [Haider Abadi] did this because he wanted to indicate to the people continued momentum. This is the Islamic State capital in Iraq, and so it has not only physical significance, as a huge stronghold of the Islamic State, it also has a great deal of symbolic value.
What they did try to achieve, though, is tactical surprise, in other words, when the actual operation began, where it began, which different locations. And they’ve done that in successive days as well.
One of the questions is can they close the back door, which goes out to the west and will be the route that some of the Islamic State leaders undoubtedly will take [to Syria].
There’s a question about whether the leader of the Islamic State, [Abu Bakr] Baghdadi, may or may not be in the city with one of his talented explosives experts.
The Iraqi security forces [are] this mix of Iraqi army, Iraqi police, Kurdish peshmerga, the Iraqi counter-terrorism service, the Iraqi air force, popular mobilization units — some Shia Arab from the south, some Sunni Arab from the tribes of Nineveh province. And the challenge is going to be, first of all, to keep all of them pulling in the same direction.
But the real issue, the real battle, of course, is the battle after the battle for Mosul, and that is the struggle for power and resources in one of the biggest and most complex provinces in all of Iraq.
As we used to say when I was privileged to be the commander there, Nineveh province has the most diverse human terrain in all of Iraq – Sunni Arab majority to be sure, but also Shia Arabs, numerous Kurdish communities, and they are broken out into several different political parties.
So the challenge is going to be how can you achieve a government that is representative of all the diverse elements of this population and then be responsive. Because there are going to be big arguments over who gets humanitarian assistance first, who gets the reconstruction money and the contracts, who gets basic services restored, which markets are reestablished, when do schools reopen.
There will also be significant disputes over territory. The Kurds have basically taken all of what used to be disputed territory between Iraq proper and the Kurdish regional government.
The Iraqi government obviously has a good bit of sway, but all of these different militias, and all of these different elements, they’re not all responding to that central government, and the tug of war that is going to ensue, or the tugs of war because there will be multiple of them, are going to be very challenging.
Since Saddam Hussein’s fall, the Iraqi government has struggled to exert authority outside the capital. If Kurdish forces want to make a land grab, if Shiite militiamen want to take revenge on Sunnis, if the Turkish government wants to send troops into Mosul over the objections of the Iraqi government, what is to stop them?
Well, there have been Iraqi army and police units reconstituted that are fighting effectively. The Iraqi special operations command is really fairly sizable and is very competent. So you have those elements.
I should note as well that the prime minister, who very much believes in inclusive governance, realizes that the element of the surge that was most important — in addition to obviously securing the people — was the reconciliation component that brought the Sunni Arabs back into the fabric of Iraqi society.
This has to be done again, and he is intent on doing that. And he has that major resource, that major centripetal force, the distribution of oil revenues that can help enormously.
Islamic State’s predecessor was driven from the cities that it controlled, yet the militants came back stronger than ever. What does destroying Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate achieve?
Well, obviously it allows life to resume for the Iraqi citizens who were under this extraordinarily oppressive, brutal, violent, extremist control that was the Islamic State.
Once the Islamic State as an army is defeated, there will have to be a refocusing of the Iraqi security force assets on the terror cells that are still present in some of the cities and what will undoubtedly be the transition for some of the fighters from being essentially an organized force, an army, to being fighters among the people — insurgents, guerrillas, what have you.
And this is a very, very intensive intelligence effort. There’s even discussion of actually taking some of the Iraqi units off line, retraining them to focus on what will now have to be a counter-insurgency campaign rather than what is right now really a fairly straightforward conventional military operation to defeat an army.
The Islamic State still has its capital, Raqqah, in Syria. That’s even more complex terrain. Do you feel that the U.S. is pursuing the right strategy there?
This has been slow; at times it has been frustratingly difficult, almost torturous. But my sense is that we have developed a fair amount of momentum, found forces with whom we can partner. So again, we will ultimately defeat the Islamic State there as well.
The fate of the rest of Syria, an entirely different issue and one for another interview. But my sense is that it may not be possible to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. What may emerge are several different statelets, if you will — the one that Bashar al-Assad and his murderous regime forces control, others that are controlled by various of the opposition entities.
So what does victory against Islamic State look like?
That is an interesting question because I don’t think these are traditional battles where you take the hill, plant the flag and go home to a victory parade. I’ve actually noted, in fact, that we’re engaged in what is likely to be a generational struggle.
We can put a stake through the heart of Islamic State as an army. We can put a stake through the heart of its leaders. You can take away its territory. But you can’t put a stake through the heart of the ideas, of the ideology, that sadly, tragically, still has some attraction for some small numbers in the Islamic faith.
And in fact that highlights the need to counter, to actually ensure that we are fighting in cyberspace too.
I’m heartened that for the first time we’re seeing some of the Internet service providers and the social media sites taking action against the Islamic State. That’s the kind of initiative that can very, very much augment on an industrial scale what the government is trying to do.
If you can harness all of these together with volunteers that are out there that are, for example, identifying to Twitter these extremist sites, then I think you start to get the kind of campaign that is necessary.