I have been spending a lot of time over the past few days thinking about the one year anniversary of the fall of Mosul to the Islamic State. While I have no particular attachment to Mosul, I cannot help but realize that its capture by the Islamic State has been nothing less than world changing. Looking back, its significance is undeniable.
Let’s examine the the world we lived in before IS captured Mosul:
- Nouri al-Malaki was Prime Minister of Iraq
- IS was still calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and the Da’ash/Daesh moniker was only used by Arabs
- Few, if any, maps of the territory controlled by the IS were being produced for consumption on the internet
- There were no propaganda videos of IS beheadings
- Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had made no public appearances
- There were no photos of IS driving American Humvees or firing American artillery
- Kirkuk was not under Kurdish control
- There were no Americans or other Westerners volunteering for Kurdish militias
- Iran was not openly sending advisors and military hardware to Iraq and their influence was less overt
- There were no American military in Iraq except for the embassy complex
- The general Americans public were not aware of IS unless they had read about them in the context of being an AQ splinter group
These are just a few observations from an American 7,000 miles away. I would be very interested to see a list like this made by an Iraqi to understand better how the fall of Mosul changed life for Iraqis—both inside and outside of IS territory. But looking at this list, it’s obvious that the fall of the Mosul was the defining moment for IS as we know it today.
It’s telling that on the one year anniversary of the fall of Mosul, the IS of today is the most famous and easily recognizable IS. Like all important moments in history, the world before it is almost hard to imagine.
Before the fall of Mosul, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki still ran Iraq with a Saddam-esque authoritarianism. A year ago Western journalists were questioning the brutal treatment of protestors and the general Western sentiment seemed that it was time for Maliki to go, should Iraq become an even quasi-democratic state. Today, Haider Abadi is Prime Minister and that strong leadership is gone. The Iraq of today is a failed state with a central government that can barely maneuver its military to crush dissent, let alone battle organized enemies.
It’s also important to note that a year ago, “IS” wasn’t “IS”. This is relevant because the battle for what this group is to be called has been waging ever since. Before the fall of Mosul there were few Muslims asking Westerners not to use the term “Islamic” to describe the group because few Westerners did. When they were mentioned at all in the West it was strictly as ISIL/ISIS much as al-Qaida is called AQ by Beltway insiders. But even that’s changed in the last year as AQ lost stature. Today, al-Qaida is more often referred to as Nusra or even the mysterious “Khorasan group” as AQ central becomes less in control of global jihadism.
Presently, those who refuse to use the title “Islamic State” or even its acronyms call it Da’ash or Daesh. It is curious that this has become a slur against the group, because it is the exact same thing as calling it ISIS except in Arabic. Even senior government leaders have dropped ISIL for Daesh. Oh, the power of words! If you know of any examples of organizations the US government has refused to name, please let me know in the comments because it seems unprecedented. It’s as if IS is Voldemort and is the group that must not be named. Ironically, I imagine this sort of self-censorship of names tends to lead to the exact opposite of its intention: it provides more power to the group in the psyche of the person who wishes to diminish that power.
But if anything comes close to holding as much power as words, it might be maps. Remember a time before those with an interest in geography and current events could visualize a map of IS territory? It existed one year ago. Now these maps are constantly being shared on social media and blogs and even make it onto the major news networks whenever there is a significant change in these perceived borders.
Yet maps such as the ones above have something in common. Their borders are all defined as a stringy web of roads and population centers. They look more like a game of cat’s cradle than a familiar political map. One must realize that it’s not as if those empty spots in the deserts of Western Iraq or Eastern Syria are controlled by their respective governments. They’re just generally empty. Does that mean they are not in IS territory? Of course not. These maps are not accurate representations of IS-held territory, at least not in the way borders are traditionally drawn. By presenting IS in this manner it undermines their power by both refusing to acknowledge them a state with clear borders and by making them look weaker (as if to say this puny so-called Islamic State only controls a few roads.) But imagine if the porous borders of the Southwest United States or the empty arctic were drawn in this fashion—they would look very similar.
If only it were just maps of IS that we were seeing more of these days. Unfortunately, it’s not. One year ago there were no IS beheading videos. Imagine that for a moment: a world in which we lived our lives without seeing videos of American aid workers being brutally murdered after a masked Briton speaks directly to the President and us. These videos started shortly after the Pentagon resumed a bombing campaign in Iraq after withdrawing from Iraq two and a half years earlier. We will return to that in a moment, but another type of propaganda we had not seen before the fall of Mosul was the public appearance of the self-appointed Caliph of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Up until then, essentially the only image we had of Baghdadi was a mugshot from his time at the Camp Bucca military prison in Iraq. But after Mosul’s fall, Baghdadi felt comfortable enough to appear in public (however, this has been his sole public appearance as far as we know.)
Another image we had not seen in a pre-fall of Mosul world was that of American Humvees and military equipment being captured by our enemies en masse. The images of hundreds of millions of dollars of American hardware being driven in IS parades shocked the nation. Dismally, many more Humvees and other equipment has been captured by IS since then, especially during the recent fall of Ramadi.
Worse yet, Humvees have turned out to be perfect weapons for IS. This might surprise many Americans (especially veterans) who know that the Cold War-designed Humvee had many flaws as a gun truck in Iraq. These flaws resulted in the uparmor program to better protect the soft-skinned vehicles from IED/VBIED and ambushes raising the purchase price from $70,000 to $220,000 each. Despite the upgraded armor, the vehicles still suffered from a design flaw in that they were low and wide which meant that explosions from below devastated the vehicle and its occupants. Worse still, the increased weight increased the instances of stuck vehicles and (often fatal) roll overs.
So the Pentagon quickly started replacing its Humvees with two million dollar MRAPs (seen recently on an American city street with a race riot near you) and the Humvees were given to our Iraqi military counterparts who likely experienced all the same problems the Americans did. Yet it was IS who found an ingenious use for them as armored guided bombs. As VBIEDs, the Humvees’ armor is perfect to keep its suicide driver alive until he hits his target.
But while images of the Islamic State in these forms evoke visceral reactions from many Americans, less understood, I think, by the general American public is that before the fall of Mosul many areas now under Kurdish control in Northern Iraq (and Syria) were not Kurdish before. Indeed, in a pre-IS Northern Iraq the Peshmerga and Iraqi Security Forces sometimes had border disputes and it seemed a state of cold peace was slowly coming to a boil. After those ISF units fled Northern Iraq during the fall of Mosul, the Kurds deftly used the power vacuum in the area to move into areas they had wanted to control for decades, such as Kirkuk. It is unlikely they will ever willing gives these areas “back” to Iraq. While the Kurds and IS continue to fight in both Iraq and Syria, in some ways IS did more for the Kurds than two and a half decades of US support.
Continuing on the topic of the Kurds, today I think more Americans know about Kurdish militias than ever before thanks to the fall of Mosul and the hot new trend of joining the YPG, or the People’s Protection Units in order to get a chance to shoot at IS fighters. Note that the YPG is from Rojava, Syria, and does not operate in Iraq, yet still this was not commonplace until after the fall of Mosul and IS really became relevant to Americans. On the other hand another Kurdish militia, the PKK, does operate in Iraq. But it has not been as popular since it is considered a terrorist organization by the United States and leans even more Red than the YPG.
But it’s not just the Kurds who have benefited from IS gains in Iraq. Because of the terrible security situation and a reluctance from the US to entangle itself in Iraq again, Iran has brilliantly stepped up to be Iraq’s savior. While it is no secret that Iran has been providing weapons and training to Shia fighters in Iraq since the US invasion, in the post-Mosul fall world Iran can openly send Revolutionary Guard advisors, the most prominent being Major General Qasem Solemani, commander of the Quds Force (Iranian foreign special operations.)
Unlike their American counterparts, the Iranians are so involved in anti-IS operations that some of their top commanders have been killed in action. Perhaps the best example of overt Iranian influence in Baghdad is a billboard of both the late Ayatollah Khomeinei and current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in the same square that Americans famously removed a statue of Saddam Hussein during the invasion. The billboard advertises Iran-backed Shia militias, without whom the “liberation” of Tikrit would not have been possible—and another example of Iran openly filling the security vacuum in Iraq.
Obviously, Americans aren’t only in the region in Kurdish units. Today, there are 3,550 American troops in Iraq with more surely on the way. It might be hard to remember, especially in the frame of the entire Iraq war from 2003 to today, but for two and a half years the United States military was effectively out of Iraq. And since the fall of Mosul, they are back and will likely remain for years. Before Mosul, the Iraq war was over. Today, the forever war continues.
Lastly, it is impossible to forget that in our post-Mosul fall world most people are aware of IS. This is probably my most salient point. Before the fall of Mosul IS was just ISIL—a successor to AQI and an AQ splinter group. If you had said that sentence aloud to someone at a party using those acronyms, very few would know what you were talking about. But today there are very few people who haven’t heard of ISIS or the Islamic State (don’t you envy them?)
Looking back, I think the fall of Mosul was a defining moment not just for IS, but for the region and even the world. In the year that has passed since then, what was once unthinkable is now commonplace. Where will we be one year from now?