What does victory look like? Donald Trump bragged about how he had helped the Iraqi forces defeat ISIS (or ISIL or IS as it is sometimes called). For convenience I will refer to them all as ISIS. ISIS as we all know is not an organization of Sunday school teachers.
I suppose such a victory is what my American friend was looking for when he called for the American forces to “take out Iran.”
Mosul is Iraq’s second most populated city. In June 2014, much to their surprise, ISIS captured Mosul as the government forces, trained and outfitted by the Americans, collapsed at the mere sight of the fearsome ISIS warriors. Much to the disappointment of the Americans, the Iraqi forces abandoned all that fancy and expensive American equipment largely without a fight. Years of American training, advice, and money, created security forces that at the first sign of trouble folded up and left their military hardware behind.
The Iraqi government was dominated by Shia Muslims. ISIS was dominated by Sunni Muslims. That made for natural enmity. It was in Mosul that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the beginning of their self-proclaimed “caliphate.” At the time the population of Mosul was 2.5 million people After ISIS ruled for more than 2 years those numbers dropped to 1.5 million.
ISIS had about 3,000 to 5,000 ISIS fighters in Mosul. The estimates of their strengths varied widely. Many of them were not well trained and included teenagers, but because of their reputation for brutality they struck fear into the hearts and minds of Iraqis and westerners alike. Only the Kurds were keen on fighting them. About 10,000 were foreign fighters in including both Arabs and non-Arabs. The rest of ISIS fighters were Iraqi.
The Iraqi-led coalition that eventually drove out ISIS included about 100,000 Iraqi security forces, (ISF), 16,000 Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF or PMU) 40,000 Peshmerga that included about 200 Iranian Kurdish female fighters from the Kurdistan Freedom Party (PAK). It was estimated that Peshmerga and ISF outnumbered ISIS fighters by about 10-1. The Kurds did most of the fighting for the American military, until the US abandoned them at the end of 2019. The world was notified of that abandonment by a tweet from President Trump and it shocked the world. The Kurds were more shocked than anyone else, even though many people told them not to trust the Americans.
The forces against ISIS were supported by many countries, including Canada, but most importantly the United States. The assault to recapture the city of Mosul really started in October of 2016. The coalition forces inflicted severe pain on ISIS in that effort and because by then ISIS was totally embedded in Iraq, the local population also suffered greatly. As the above photograph makes abundantly clear, the “victory” of retaking Mosul from ISIS came at a horrendous cost to the city and the people who lived there.
The UN stated that ISIS had taken tens of thousands of civilians to use as human shields in Mosul. Those who refused to go were executed. Life (and death) was simple in Mosul.
Airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition targeted ISIS positions, and ISIL started tire fires to reduce visibility. Heavy fighting occurred in the city. The city was “won” back from ISIS by hard block-by-block fighting. Before the battle to take back Mosul was over, it was estimated that it would cost more than $1 billion to repair “basic” infrastructure in the city. This process would likely take years. Again looking at the photograph above that is hardly surprising.
The UN also estimated that more than 5,000 buildings have been damaged and another 490 were destroyed in the Old City. During the battle Amnesty International accused Iraqi, Kurdish and United States forces of using unnecessarily powerful weapons including MOAB the so-called Mother of All Bombs, the most powerful non-nuclear bomb in the world. Both sides damaged many religious sites.
The US accused ISIS of using civilians as human shields. It was confirmed that this happened and was widely condemned by human rights organizations. The International Business Times reported that ISIS had forced boys as young as 12 to fight for them and that ISIS had trained the children to behead prisoners and make suicide bombs. Civilians were shot and deposited into mass graves in the city. ISIS also carried out retribution killings of civilians for welcoming Iraqi and Peshmerga troops.
The presence of Iraqi forces with several militias with histories of human rights abuses caused various organizations to criticize the US led coalition forces. The International Business Times reported cases of Iraqi security forces torturing and interrogating young children for information about ISIS. On March 17, 2017 a U.S. led coalition air-strike in Mosul killed more than 200 civilians. Amnesty Internationals reported, “The high civilian toll suggests that coalition forces leading the offensive in Mosul have failed to take adequate precautions to prevent civilian deaths, in flagrant violation of international humanitarian law.”
Kurdish intelligence estimated in July of 2017 that the total number of civilian casualties at the time were 40,000. The largest portion of this loss of life is attributable to the unyielding artillery bombardment by U.S. supported Iraqi government forces. The US-led coalition forces were one of the significant sources of civilian deaths.
Thousands of people had been forced to flee the country as a result of ISIS attacks and bombardment by U.S. led coalition forces. Of course, many of these refugees were children. The refugees were not welcome in the Us as part of his Muslim ban. All sides were accused of violating human rights laws. About one day after victory was declared by Iraqi forces, Amnesty International accused both sides of violating international laws. The Iraqi forces, supported by the U.S. were accused of carrying out unlawful attacks using explosive weapons and failing to take necessary precautions to prevent the loss of civilian life and in some cases including disproportionate attacks.
An Associated Press investigation that cross-referenced independent databases from non-governmental organizations, claimed that 9,000–11,000 residents of Mosul were killed in the battle. It blamed airstrikes and shellings by Iraqi forces and anti-ISIS coalition of being responsible for at least 3,200 civilian deaths. The coalition on the other hand has acknowledged responsibility for 326 deaths. ISIS was held responsible for killing one third of the civilians out of the death toll. Both sides were brutal. As I said before, savagery was the chief legacy of the war in Iraq, not democracy as George W Bush an dDick Cheney had envisioned.
Official victory over ISIS was declared in July of 2017, but that did not stop further heavy fighting as ISIS continued to resist in the Old City of Mosul.
It has been estimated that removing explosives from Mosul and repairing the city will cost $50 billion over the next 5 years.
This is what “victory” looks like. It’s not a pretty picture. Who is looking forward to another victory in the Middle East?