During my recent trip to northern Iraq, I had wanted to visit, among other places, Mosul, the second largest city of the country and once the capital of the Islamic State (IS) in the Persian Gulf nation.
However, I changed my mind and abandoned the idea as every local friend whom I met in the region had warned me against doing so.
The city was apparently deemed not safe enough for travel, even a year after the IS was ostensibly crushed there.
Being an international-relations academic, I feel deeply about the ordeal that the city of Mosul had gone through in recent years.
As a buffer zone lying between mainland Iraq and the northern Kurdish stronghold, Mosul has been, historically speaking, known for being a very culturally diversified city and the birthplace of many famous ancient scholars and warriors.
During the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, Mosul sustained quite a lot of damage amid intense American airstrikes, but quickly recovered after the war.
However, it was in 2014, when Mosul was occupied by the IS, that real catastrophe actually descended upon the ancient city and its people.
Immediately after the IS had seized control of Mosul, several hundreds of thousands of its local residents began to flee the city, and a lot of historical monuments were reduced to rubble.
At the beginning, most of the local people who chose to remain in the city thought government troops and anti-IS coalition forces would quickly come to their rescue and recapture the city.
None of them would have imagined that, as it turns out, it would take three years for their city to get liberated.
Viewed from whatever perspective, the fall of Mosul can be seen as stemming from a series of avoidable human errors.
For example, the Iraqi government had learnt that the IS was aggressively eying Mosul long before the latter mounted its all-out offensive against the city.
Worse still, when the two opposing forces finally met, the 30,000-strong Iraqi regular army plus another 30,000 armed policemen quickly collapsed in front of the IS forces, which were only made up of some 1,000 poorly equipped guerrilla combatants. The IS militants had infiltrated into the city in advance, and attacked the Iraqi troops from behind during the battle.
The Iraqi government forces, despite their overwhelming number and fire power, were defeated easily in the battle of Mosul.
Deeply humiliated by the defeat, the government in Baghdad quickly amassed another army group in an attempt to retake Mosul in 2015, only to have to shelve the plan following an embarrassing defeat in the city of Ramadi, where 6,000 regular Iraqi soldiers were crushed by a tiny 150-strong IS contingent.
There were another couple of reasons why the West and the Iraqi government allowed Mosul to remain in the IS hands for three years. One, there was grave concern in Baghdad that the Kurds might fish in troubled waters and seize Mosul when the government troops were engaging the IS.
Two, the western coalition forces were reluctant to commit their soldiers to urban warfare in Mosul. Nor were they willing to take the responsibility of launching massive airstrikes against the city for fear that it might result in huge civilian casualties.
However, after Donald Trump took office as US president, Washington quickly ditched the moderate strategy adopted by the Obama administration, and ordered a massive air raid campaign against Mosul that lasted for months in order to annihilate IS strongholds in the city.
The “new tactic” has been considered a success in military terms, but the magnitude of its collateral damage was staggering: not only was the entire Mosul left in ruins, the civilian death toll was also absolutely appalling.
Yet, such damage in Mosul last year was not the “details” the mainstream American news media were mostly interested in.
Just as the Iraqis are celebrating the first anniversary of the IS defeat, some friends of mine in Mosul have told me that the remaining IS pockets have been regrouping recently, and are now mounting another wave of attacks within the downtown, a situation that is highly reminiscent of what happened prior to the fall of the city back in 2014.
Meanwhile, Muqtada al-Sadr, the Iraqi Shia leader, recently warned that it would be just a matter of time before Mosul would once again end up easily in the hands of the IS if the intense infighting among the various political factions in Iraq continues.
Roughly one year into Mosul’s liberation, the progress of rebuilding the city has remained very sluggish. If young people in the city continue to see no hope for their future, it will only add to the difficult situation there.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Dec 14
Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting
[Chinese version 中文版]
– Contact us at [email protected]