Iraqis have gotten used to grim news over the last three years, but the Iraqi government was finally able to deliver some positive updates to its people this week. After a grueling, exhausting, 8-month military offensive against several thousand dug-in Islamic State fighters, Iraqi forces were finally able to capture the very same mosque where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared his caliphate in July 2014. The recapture of the Grand al-Nuri mosque and its damaged minaret is a symbolic victory for an Iraqi army that just a few short years ago was on the cusp of complete and utter collapse.
Iraqi officials and their coalition allies are predictably claiming victory in Mosul. Writing on Twitter, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi championed the fall of the al-Nuri mosque as the symbolic fall of the Islamic State's caliphate. "We are seeing the end of the fake Daesh state, the liberation of Mosul proves that,” Abadi boasted. "We will not relent, our brave forces will bring victory.” The U.S.-led international coalition that has been advising, assisting, and providing extensive air support to the Iraqi security forces was just as jubilant, proclaiming that it was only a matter of days before Mosul’s old city was fully cleansed of ISIS fighters. Indeed, with celebrations ongoing in Washington, Baghdad, and Europe, you could be forgiven for believing that Baghdadi and his jihadist followers are now banished from Iraq for good.
Nobody should underestimate the significance of the Islamic State being driven out of Iraq’s second-largest city. Thousands of Iraqi troops have been killed and thousands more have been injured fighting for their country in the hope that Iraq would come to this exact moment in history. But everybody should take a deep breath and take a good, hard look at where we are in the campaign before being carried away. We should remember that we’ve been here before. There was a time not so long ago when a certain U.S. president spoke on an aircraft carrier, standing in front of a giant “Mission Accomplished” banner, declaring that major combat operations against Saddam Hussein were over and that a bright, new future for Iraq was in sight. History would eventually prove that the celebratory rhetoric was just that—rhetoric based on conjecture more than hard facts. If U.S. officials, and more importantly the Iraqi government, aren't careful, they are bound to repeat that experience.
ISIS may be a spent force in Mosul and across much of Iraq (and increasingly Syria), but that doesn’t mean that the group will go away entirely or that the conditions that helped spawn Baghdadi into jihadist stardom in the first place have in any way been adequately addressed. The soldiers have done their jobs. Now it’s up to those squabbling men in suits to do theirs. As Maj. Gen. Man al-Saadi told the BBC, Iraq’s success now "depends on the politicians. It's complicated in Iraq.”
Even with a weakened and beleaguered ISIS, Iraq is far away from being a nation cured of problems. Like as the period immediately after the 2007-2008 U.S. troop surge provided Iraqi political leaders with breathing space to heal the chasm that separated Iraq’s multiple communities, the immediate stretch of time post-Mosul is a chance for the Iraqi government and parliament to begin touching upon their economic and political disparities.
It is very likely that the U.S. Congress will continue to sustain the Iraq stabilization and counter-ISIS accounts that have been included in annual authorization and appropriations bills for the last several years (the House Armed Services Committee included approximately $1.76 billion for the counter-ISIS train and equip fund). Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joe Dunford has suggested that a long-term U.S. and NATO training presence in Iraq is an option the Trump administration is seriously considering.
But leaving aside whether a long-term American military presence in Iraq is desirable, none of it will matter if Iraq’s own are derelict in their responsible of ensuring that the Iraqi people are given an opportunity to rebuild their lives after years of subjugation from a barbaric and brutal terrorist organization. Violence can be decreased, buildings can be rebuilt, and refugees can come home, but economies can’t be fully restored and domestic security can’t be expanded beyond the immediate unless all of Iraq’s political officials — including those in the fractious Iraqi parliament and the provincial councils dotted throughout the country — put serving their constituents above their personal ambitions or sectarian power contests.
All of this is easier said than done. Rebuilding a society destroyed by war and terrorism will take a considerable period of time. But the sooner Prime Minister Abadi, his coalition government, and Iraq’s opposition parties start the process, the faster they can accomplish the goal.
The dialogue between Washington and Baghdad should remain open, and if the Iraqi government requires additional American assistance in the future (which they likely will), the Trump administration shouldn’t dismiss the request out of hand. Yet after 14 years of being intimately involved in the circular maze that is Iraqi affairs, Americans have learned a hard lesson: it is Iraqis, not the United States, that will determine whether Iraq succeeds or fails.
Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.