Arguably, the three most violent conflict zones in the world are the ISIS-led Syrian-Iraqi swathes, the unforgiving terrain of the Taliban-led Af-Pak region, and the distant madness in the Libyan deserts with the bloodlust of the myriad Islamist/tribal militias. All three conflict zones have an eerie similarity – each of these zones was under some “benign dictator” (Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Muammar Gadhafi in Libya, and Muhammad Najibullah in Afghanistan) who was fundamentally opposed to the West. Each of these dictatorships were tolerated (sometimes even covertly supported e.g. Iraq in the 80’s), as long as they did as per the West’s bidding – all this would suddenly change when the dictatorship reneged on favourable politico-commercial interests of the West, who would then unleash a furious agenda of regime change, without any post-regime-change plans and support for governance. To actualise their single-point agenda, the West instigated and supported bloody rebellions against the ‘no-longer benign’ regimes and would conveniently walk away leaving the natives high and dry in a cauldron of abject deprivation and destruction. The West’s lack of strategic and long-term vision, the absence of compelling, credible and empathetic justifications, and an arrogant display of military might (e.g. drones) has always left these zones with a pathologically, anti-West sentiment.
That the phenomenon of ISIS is borne of the ‘secular’ but abandoned Baathists, who then found bloody succour in radical Salafist ideology to avenge their humiliation and sectarian grievances, is a well-known reality. Likewise, the ancestry of Taliban is directly traceable to the West supported-mujahideen of the 80’s who were hosted and feted at the White House and 10 Downing Street, and even compared to the founding fathers of the nation! That these bearded ultra-outlaws would disprove the inert naivety in Brzezinski’s theory of supporting a “few crazed Muslims” to be worth the price to pay, for the destruction of the Soviet Union, is a telling pathos. Lastly, the rare candidness of President Obama, in accepting Libya as the ‘worst mistake’ of his Presidency, in failing to prepare for the aftermath of ousting Muammar Gaddafi is a repetitive testimony to the subsequent chaos, bloodshed and extreme violence, initiated by the sudden vacuum created by the West’s disappearance, after achieving its narrow and selfish aim of regime change.
Obama’s prescient insight on his Libyan failure was, “Probably failing to plan for the day after”! This monumental failure is the bugbear modern global unrest, as the mujahideen of the Af-Pak regions mutated into the modern day Taliban and have accounted for nearly 2400 US casualties, the cost of war on the ISIS itself, is estimated in excess of $8 billion and the ensuing air strikes are costing $11 million a day, besides triggering a genocidal loss of life. In Libya, known loyalists of Gaddafi are said to have extracted revenge for their slain leader by killing the US ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens. The war in all these ‘vacated’ conflict zones only exacerbated and extracted a huge toll for the West, the local population, and the world as a whole.
With this backdrop, talks of the ‘decisive battle’ against the ISIS in Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, are foreboding. While it is undoubtedly a prized catch in Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi's “caliphate”, the impending retreat of ISIS hides the familiar fault-lines that beset the Middle East. The assorted cobbling of unlikely allies in the form of Kurdish Peshmerga, Iraqi armed forces, Shia militias, Turkish soldiers, US ‘advisers’ etc. is militarily, a formidable challenge for the ISIS to withstand – so, the estimated 5000 ISIS fighters in a city of 1 million are expected to succumb after milking a bloody price through the indiscriminate use of suicide bombs and civilian human shields. Arriving at a governance model in Mosul, post the ISIS defeat, will be the ultimate challenge. Deep rooted animosities and wounds of the recent past will posit the wary Sunni-majority populace into an uncomfortable huddle by the sectarian adversaries like the Iraqi Armed Forces and the other Shia militias, or under the ‘alien’ rule of Kurds, Turks, and the Americans. Flashback, to the-then rule of the regressively sectarian and brutal government of Nouri Al-Maliki, is inevitable, as comparisons are odious with the new fellow-co-sect government of the current Prime Minister, Haider Al-Abadi. Further, the co-existence of Kurdish militias and the Turkish Armed Forces in the joint fight against ISIS has an uncomfortable dynamic and augury for these two estranged forces, amongst themselves.
The ISIS is beyond just an armed group; it is an ideology that transcends borders and attracts adherents from over 80 countries across the world. Militarily, Fallujah, Tikrit, Ramadi, and Baiji have been reclaimed from the ISIS in Iraq– but the general sense of Sunni marginalisation will haunt and fester, the ongoing Iranian-Saudi proxy wars will create their pressures, and the old and unresolved tussle for redemption and tribal honour will create violent dissonance. The fact that there is no agreement or even eye-to-eye discussions amongst the myriad forces, who are simply concentrating on evicting the formal presence of ISIS from Iraq, has a familiar ring to it.
The tinderbox of Middle East is a veritable playground for geopolitical shadowboxing and grandstanding. The Russians have their axe to grind in supporting the West-loathed, Bashar Al-Assad in Syria, whereas the Turks are fancying their irredentist claims in the region (the Turks have never fully digested the incorporation of the former Ottoman province of Mosul, to Iraq in the 1920’s).
With no concrete alignment or understanding amongst the key stakeholders in and around Mosul, the post-ISIS picture will severely test the permanency of the ‘divisive battle’. Even though the Gulf monarchies and sheikhdoms are nervous about the ISIS presence in their backyards – the spectre of Shia forces controlling a predominantly Sunni township of Mosul, will not go down well in the cash-rich capitals of Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, or Doha. If the uneasy tentativeness of the ‘humanitarian truce’ in the neighbouring Syria’s besieged town of Aleppo is anything to go by, in terms of operational alignment amongst the major partakers of the fight against the ISIS – Mosul, could see an unfortunate, familiar and utterly premature declaration of “mission accomplished”, as was signaled by President George Bush in 2003, atop the USS Abraham Lincoln.
(Lt Gen Bhopinder Singh (Retd) is Former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Puducherry. The views expressed are strictly personal.)