The Fall of Mosul

Marches of Folly

by James Russell

Painful as it is to watch black clad Sunni extremists marauding their way through Mosul — a city that Americans died defending — we should all be required to take a dose of the images and the poor Iraqi refugees fleeing for their lives.

The fall of Mosul to these armed, dangerous thugs and their nihilistic, anti-modern ideology serves as a monument to the US’ folly in Iraq and the flawed assumptions and false optimism that led us into the quagmire. The very jihadist terrorists that once flocked to Iraq to spill American blood have apparently routed the Army built by the United States.

Those on the far right of the US’ own politics leading the chants for more war with Iran, Russia or whatever international “bad guy” adversary they can conjure up should take note of the unintended consequences of starting wars in far off places where they (and we) do not understand the political fissures bubbling just below the surface of these societies.

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) and its militia driving around in Toyotas cannot conquer Iraq, but they can certainly split apart what’s left of the country and create another vast area of violence and chaos that will see much of the former Sykes-Picot mandate territories become havens for terrorists and jihadists. Indeed, photographs surfaced yesterday purportedly showing ISIS fighters bulldozing a berm dividing Iraq and Syria.

Onto the strategic blunder of the US invasion of Iraq, however, has been layered yet another and perhaps even more serious blunder by America’s erstwhile allies in Riyadh and other Gulf States. As the US rightfully resisted pressure to intervene in the Syrian civil war, these countries have poured weapons and money into the fray that have in no small measure helped create the forces of darkness now spreading like a cancer across the Middle East’s landscape.

Where once there was a fleeting vision exemplified by Egypt’s Tahrir Square protests of a region with pluralistic democracies working out their differences at the ballot box, we now see the triumph of the forces of counter-revolution engineered by the mukhabarat states and their security services.

We’ve seen a version of this movie before, as the Saudis in particular chose to export their fundamentalist religious ideology overseas to spawn violent resistance groups around the globe.

The West chose to join forces with Saudi Arabia in Afghanistan in the 1980s because the alliance suited its purposes. Today we are left with the Taliban, the Haqqani network, and a host of other malign groups taking up arms in support of Islamic extremist political objectives. Soon these groups will be settling scores with another Western-created army and regime in Kabul.

Therein lies the broader strategic blunder of America’s regional allies, the Sunni mukhabarat states. The war has come home to the Middle East, just as Bin Laden and Sayyid Qutb foresaw. Their strategic objective was always a war against the near enemy — the corrupt regimes that had been created in the aftermath of colonial occupation.

Qutb’s enemy was Nasser — an effete, charismatic leader that tried to make his countrymen believe in Arab nationalism. Bin Laden’s enemies were in the House of Saud, who he saw as corrupt leaders propped up by the United States that had turned their back on their religion and lost their right to serve as protectors of the holy sites of Islam.

Saudi Arabia always straddled the political fence in this fight — choosing to crack down at home, while sending its religious and ideological radicals abroad to fight in the name of their religion. Now, however, those radicals are on their doorstep driving in pickup trucks with weapons paid for in Riyadh careening towards Baghdad and a clash that may prompt Iranian intervention to save the Shia government in Baghdad.

In Cairo, the calculus and political context is different, but of one thing we can be sure — the associates of Sayyid Qutb and Ayman Al-Zawahiri that have been temporarily driven underground by the military dictatorship are keeping their powder dry for future contingencies.

This returns us to America’s march of folly in Iraq and another of the searing and painful ironies of its ill-fated war. Those that may eventually be consumed by war have themselves brought the war against the near enemy home into the Middle East. The forces of Islamic extremism are now eating away at the foundation of America’s two twin pillar partners — Saudi Arabia and Egypt. America’s third pillar in Israel is itself beset with its own religious fundamentalists.

The United States long ago threw in its lot with the states that are now seen (at least in the Gulf) as global entrepots. In Saudi Arabia, the US has helped build the myriad internal security services designed to protect the regime. In Egypt, the US became the principal benefactor of Egypt’s army — now seen as the anchor of Egyptian politics.

The strategic choice facing the United States with the fall of Mosul goes far beyond the fate of the Maliki government in Iraq, which may be forced into reaching out to Tehran to rescue it from the Sunni militia. Instead, Washington will have to decide whether to continue doubling down on its bets in Riyadh and Cairo and their rotted foundations.

It is a bet and a policy choice with no attractive options. In the best of all possible worlds, the Sunni states should band together with the Maliki government to jointly restore order in Iraq. But the Iranians (and the Iraqis) likely would not support such measures — even if the Sunni states could deploy such a multinational force into the field to drive back the black-clad fighters. This is also beyond the US; capacities to resume its role of policeman in Iraq; the idea of calling in airstrikes via planes or drones is ludicrous.

Instead, what we are left with is a violent and anarchic struggle in which the people of these places will pay the ultimate prices as families are uprooted and young men go off to war and death.

The bitterest pill of all is the realization that we all better hope that the mukhabarat states win the fight against the extremists and are not themselves consumed and overthrown in the process.

Photo: Iraqis fleeing violence in Mosul arrive in the Kurdistan region on June 11. Credit: UNHCR/I. Colijn

James Russell

James A. Russell is an Associate Professor in the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA, where he is teaching courses on Middle East security affairs, nuclear proliferation, terrorism, and national security strategy. His articles and commentaries have appeared in a wide variety of media and scholarly outlets around the world. His latest book is titled Innovation, Transformation and War: US Counterinsurgency Operations in Anbar and Ninewa Provinces, Iraq, 2005-2007 (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2011). He is currently working on a book about learning in irregular war, focusing on US military operations in Afghanistan. Prior to arriving at NPS from 1988-2001, Mr. Russell held a variety of positions in the Office of the Assistant Secretary Defense for International Security Affairs, Near East South Asia, Department of Defense. During this period he traveled extensively in the Persian Gulf and Middle East working on various aspects of US security policy. He holds a Masters in Public and International Affairs from the University of Pittsburgh and a Ph.D. in War Studies from the University of London. The views he expresses here are his own.



  1. What a sobering post this is. How many years, how many lives, how much money, and all for what? Freedom, peace, debatable. Corruption, “you bet-chum cowboy”, both there and here. And the beat goes on. Of course, those responsible, will escape any retribution, but who cares, right? After all, the people who make the decisions creating these “Clusterfucks”, live 1,000’s of miles/kilometers away, safe from the violence. How does the saying go: “you reap what you sow”, how true. Sad for everyone, except the ones who profiteer from wars. And adding insult to injury, they probably don’t even pay taxes on that profit.

  2. Maybe this is all “part of the plan” first proposed back in 2006 by a group of think tank types including then-senator Joe Biden. According to the New York Times, they were calling for a “soft-partition plan, dividing Iraq into three semi-autonomous regions, “a loose Kurdistan, a loose Shiastan and a loose Sunnistan, all under a big, if weak, Iraq umbrella.”

    So if that’s the case, then the US and ISIS have similar strategic goals. The ISIS will not likely march on Baghdad or expand their control, but instead tighten their grip on Mosul and surrounding region.

  3. I too saw the ill-considered effort to overthrow the Syrian government as all-too-likely to result in chaos in Iraq.

    One does well to remember that Condoleezza Rice had scarcely a clue what a Pandora’s box she was helping the neocon warmongers to open, when the idiotic US invasion of Iraq went forward in 2003.

    “Scarcely a clue” is perhaps too kind.

  4. @ronmac – – I think Joe Biden fairly quickly came to see the grave dangers of the neocon scheme to bring about partition of Iraq and Syria. (To benefit Israel.)

  5. @Norman – – Condi Rice has been richly rewarded for serving as an Israeli stooge in the White House.

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