As Iraqi and Kurdish troops began the operation to liberate Mosul from the Islamic State, with help from U.S. advisers and air power, my mind flashed back to my visit to the city in 2003.
It was not long after U.S. troops had first seized control from Saddam Hussein’s forces. Gen. David Petraeus, then commander of the 101st Airborne, was reaching out to the leaders of this multiethnic, but mainly Sunni, Arab city.
But, as I walked around Mosul’s city hall, one official pulled me aside, and warned presciently, in a whisper: “Saddam’s men are growing beards and moving into the Sunni mosques. When the Americans leave, they will return as Islamists.” Sure enough, when U.S. troops pulled back, Sunni Islamist jihadis emerged; they morphed over the years – through several iterations – into the Islamic State.
So the nagging question is what happens on the day after the Islamic State, when the jihadis are driven out of Mosul and surrounding Nineveh province. If the military plan succeeds, will there be any political follow-up to prevent Sunni grievances from producing a son of the Islamic State?
Right now, no such political plan is in sight. And no one understands the danger of such a political vacuum better than the Kurds.
“The big worry on our part is who is going to govern Mosul and Nineveh and how,” I was recently told by Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, the smart, thoughtful representative of Iraq’s Kurdish Regional Government in Washington.
What the Kurds fear most is that, absent a prior accord between the Baghdad government and the Kurdish region, the liberation of Mosul and Nineveh will only lead to new fighting. Even worse, outside powers, such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran, might fight a proxy war over who controls Mosul and its surroundings, backing different Sunni or Shiite factions.
Why should Americans care, you ask? Because out of such Iraqi chaos (along with the Syrian chaos next door) can grow new jihadi movements, or even wars between Arab countries.
And because there still is a slim chance that – with renewed cache from helping liberate Mosul – the United States could help mediate the Iraqi politics of the post-Islamic State era.
To understand how, let’s look at the main players who will be competing for turf when the Islamic State is defeated, as it will be, perhaps sooner than many expect. (Warning: these details may give you a headache; but they are key to understanding the perils of post-Islamic State Iraq.)
First, the Kurds. Right now the Kurds and the Iraqi government are on reasonable terms because Baghdad needs Kurdish fighters to help liberate Mosul. But the Kurds already hold parts of Nineveh that they seized from the Islamic State over the past two years; they want those areas to become part of an independent Kurdish state, or, at minimum, to be part of a confederation loosely linked with the rest of Iraq.
Those new boundaries, and the fate of Kurdish-populated sections of Mosul, need to be negotiated with Baghdad. Without such talks, the post-Islamic State era could see fighting between the Iraqi army and the Kurds.
Second, the Iraqi Shiites. The country’s Shiite prime minister, Haidar Abadi, has made efforts at co-existence with Sunni Arabs and Kurds. However, the country’s powerful Shiite militias, directed from Tehran, are eager to eclipse the Iraqi army and play a major role in liberating Nineveh, if not Mosul. (Iran would like to secure a territorial corridor through Nineveh to next-door Syria, where it supports Bashar al-Assad.) If those Shiite militias enter the Nineveh fray, they are likely to take bloody revenge against the majority of Sunnis there, whom they blame for the crimes of the Islamic State. The Shiite militias may also fight the Kurds for Nineveh turf.
Third, the Iraqi Sunnis. Deprived of their patron, Saddam Hussein, some bitter Sunnis backed al-Qaida and then the Islamic State. But the bulk probably could have been wooed by a smart Shiite leader who offered them some political carrots. Instead, Iraq’s Shiite leaders, under Iranian pressure, mainly used sticks; they have yet even to permit a Sunni tribal national guard to fight the Islamic State. The defeat of the Islamic State opens the door for a new deal, perhaps offering Sunnis one or two federal states that would motivate them to squelch any remaining jihadis. But if Shiite militias surge into Nineveh, that will end hopes for co-existence.
Fourth, the outside meddlers, Iran and Turkey. Tehran wants a weak Iraq that it controls through Shiite militias; Ankara has dreams of an Ottoman empire redux, and has sent a few hundred troops into Iraq against the wishes of Baghdad. They, along with the Saudis, could stir up trouble by pushing their Iraqi proxies to fight each other.
So you can see the need for a post-Islamic State political accord among Iraqi factions that works out the lines between Arabs and Kurds in Nineveh and Mosul. It would also have to give Sunnis some hope while assuaging Shiite fears of a Sunni power revival. And it would have to delineate who would control what within post-Islamic State Nineveh province (including safe areas for the Christians and Yazidis for whom the province was their historic home).
Such an accord is probably a pipe dream, especially if Iraq’s neighbors refuse to keep their paws off the country. But absent a deal – which would require serious U.S. diplomatic help – post-Islamic State Iraq is likely to look pretty ugly. And you can be certain the jihadis will be back under some new name.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.