The rise and fall of ISIS: What’s next for Iraq?

by Matthew Barr

Liberation of mosul briefing pentagon 1
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Pentagon press briefing on the Liberation of Mosul, 13 July 2017. Photo: Jim Mattis, Secretary of Defense via Flickr

The fall of ISIS in Mosul and Raqqa in recent months represents a significant point in the military campaign against the terror group. It also provides an opportunity to ask what’s next for those regions newly freed from ISIS rule? For any lasting sense of success beyond liberating ISIS-controlled territory, there is a need to address the wider political and social drivers that facilitated the rise of ISIS in the first place.

The military defeat of ISIS in these cities effectively signals the end of its self-proclaimed Caliphate as a geographical entity, in what has been a rapid rise and fall for this iteration of the terrorist group. But the conditions that allowed it to rise should give pause to those who now hope to build a more stable and peaceful society in its wake. As the Iraqi government once more wrestles over Mosul – this time with Kurdish authorities – what factors need to be addressed to establish governance structures that can last?

Here, I address two institutional elements that contributed to ISIS being able to gain what was perhaps its most significant success in its campaign of conquest: the capture of Mosul in June 2014. To understand these events, we need to look back to the initial fragmentation of political authority in Iraq following the 2003 invasion, and to the corruption that plagued the Iraqi governments that followed.

Following the 2003 overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the original invasion plan envisioned a rapid handover of power to an interim Iraqi authority, which would use the pre-existing political infrastructure in Iraq to administer the country prior to national elections. Upon securing Baghdad, the dawning reality of the condition of Iraq’s governance structures meant the US-led coalition unwittingly found itself presiding over a country whose political institutions had been hollowed out and were in a state of collapse.

The US response to this ‘new’ reality was to directly occupy and administer the country itself, initially through the Coalition Provisional Authority. As outlined by Herring and Rangwala in Iraq in Fragments: The Occupation and its Legacy, given its status as a foreign occupying power, the coalition was extremely vulnerable to any internal political challenger who could gain local legitimacy and test its ability to maintain power over the state-building project.

US Marine Corps tanks patrol Baghdad, April 2003. Photo: US Marine Corps via Wikimedia Commons

In the early stages of the occupation, the coalition was unable to bring the different sections of Iraqi society together to work in unison on the coalition’s state-building project and was certainly unable to do so in ways that did not challenge its control. This was problematic for broader US ambitions in the country and the region. The invasion of Iraq was not just about replacing the Ba’athist regime headed by Saddam Hussein, but doing so with a particular form of liberal democratic state.

The attempt by the coalition to maintain control over the shaping of post-war events and drive the processes of state-building in its desired direction in the face of a plurality of opponents came at the cost of creating strong, central political institutions that were broadly representative. Simply put, when faced with choosing between building such a broadly representative, centralised state and maintaining its position of control, the US picked the latter. It did so at the expense of creating longer-term political institutions stable enough to withstand the multiplicity of regional and internal political pressures within Iraq.

The resultant fragmentation of political authority and weak state institutions also meant that competition for power within Iraq occurred outside both formal processes and the centre. The insurgency and counter-insurgency were shaped by this dynamic. Indeed, this not only helped create the conditions in which the armed insurgency was able to rise, but the fragmentation of political authority also helped prevent the coalition from winning the battle of legitimation against the insurgency.

This fragmentation was apparent not only among political actors, but also within the ranks of the Iraqi army. Despite its vast numbers, significant financial investments and training, many members of the newly reconstituted Iraqi army had a limited sense of loyalty to a nation-state unable to bind together disparate factions into a broadly representative whole. Consequently, in the face of the barbarism of ISIS, many in the Iraqi army, far from their homes, simply abandoned their posts.

Western Mosul, June 2017. Photo: European Commission DG ECHO/Peter Biro via Flickr

Corruption also played its part in undermining the military efforts that saw the Iraqi army fail to repel a force only a few thousand strong in Mosul during 2014. Whilst corruption plagued post-war Iraq from the outset, when Nouri al-Maliki became Prime Minister in 2006 – in a deal brokered by then UK Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, and then US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice – he used state resources to secure loyalty and embolden his rule.

Specifically, in regards to the Iraqi army, rather than basing senior military appointments on expertise and experience, Maliki appointed generals who were loyal to him. Similarly, he purged Iraq’s intelligence service of those not aligned with his party, which meant that the Iraqi army lacked crucial intelligence and was made up of political appointees who fled rather than faced ISIS on the battlefield in Mosul.

The reasons for the rise and early success of ISIS are multifaceted and extend beyond the two issues addressed here. Nevertheless, the failure following the 2003 invasion to build a functioning political infrastructure and a strong set of social and political institutions that would create a representative and accountable democratic state represents a significant component in the calculus for the rise of ISIS. Thus, future prospects within Iraq are contingent upon not just the effective use of military force, but the ability to build pluralistic and accountable government structures capable of bridging the gap between society and state.

About the author

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Matthew Barr is a Lecturer in Public Policy at the University of Cambridge. His research is on the processes of political decision- and policy-making in both public- and foreign-policy settings. He is currently writing a book on British policy-making and the Iraq War.
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