In July 2017, Iraqi soldiers, backed by U.S. air strikes, liberated Mosul, the city where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), had declared a caliphate just three years before. It was a hard-won victory. For nine grueling months, Iraq’s Counter Terrorism Service, an elite group of U.S.- trained forces, suffered heavy losses as they fought street by street to uproot ISIS fighters, who used the local population as human shields. Thousands of civilians were killed, and a million or so were displaced from their homes. Mosul’s historic monuments have been destroyed. And the city’s infrastructure lies in tatters.
But there is also much to celebrate. The liberation of Mosul ended a reign of terror that saw children brainwashed in schools, smokers publicly flogged, Yazidi women reduced to sex slaves, and gay men thrown from rooftops. The victory also struck a devastating blow to ISIS, killing thousands of its fighters, shrinking its resources, crushing its organizational capacity, and diminishing its global appeal.
With a military victory in hand, U.S. President Donald Trump might want to declare “mission accomplished” and seek a hasty exit from Iraq. Fourteen years after the U.S. invasion, that choice is no doubt tempting. But making it would be a dangerous mistake.
As much as Trump and other Americans may wish to end any involvement, what happens in Iraq does not stay in Iraq. ISIS has lost most of the territory it controlled in the country and is severely weakened as an organization, but the group retains the capacity to conduct attacks internationally. And U.S. support is still needed to strengthen the Iraqi state and to discourage other countries in the region from filling the power vacuum. The collapse of Iraq was instrumental in the unraveling of regional order; its stability is key to restoring a balance of power.
WHAT WENT WRONG?
In March 2003, the United States invaded Iraq on the assumption (which surge of additional U.S. troops into the country in 2007, combined with the cooperation of Sunni tribes (the so-called Sunni Awakening), dramatically reduced sectarian violence and brought about the defeat of al Qaeda in Iraq.
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