In the rural areas south and east of Mosul, Iraq, areas that were liberated from the Islamic State by last fall, farmers went back to their fields to planting this Spring, literally risking life and limb.
The fields they were ploughing and seeding were laced with mines and various kinds of unexploded munitions. Everyone expects that some farmers will die.
War is Hell, and post-war is always a Hell of a mess.
Repairing or replacing destroyed homes, shops and infrastructure are huge jobs, and so are clearing mines and other ordinance, and setting up rules for the locals to live by, even after the occupiers are gone.
But by far the most dangerous left-overs from the war are its fighters, many of them still armed and still organized in militias not under government control. Every war in our time has produced them. And almost every post-war of my experience, from the Balkans through Iraq, is shaped and often ruled by these militias.
In Bosnia, after the US and the European Union stopped the war – almost always a good thing – the great powers did a very bad thing, they walked away and handed power back to the very thugs who had started the war.
These were local mafias who provided muscle for the nationalist political parties, Serb, Croat, and Muslim, and stole and killed on their own, as well. No outside power wanted the job of taking their weapons away; and no one local had the chops to do it, so the Mafias took over, and 20 years later, they still bleed the economies of all 3 ethnic cantons in Bosnia, and make all 3 of them unattractive to foreign investment.
But these former-militias are content to rape and pillage their own people, rarely causing trouble beyond Bosnia’s borders.
Now let’s go to Iraq, where really serious armed militia trouble is on the verge of blowing out of control.
In 2014, when the Islamic State took much of the north and west of Iraq, including the big prize, Mosul, they rolled over the Iraqi National Army and executed thousands of captured soldiers. By late 2015, when planning to retake Mosul and expel the Islamic State from Iraq began to get serious, the National Army had been re-constituted and retrained. But aside from its Special Forces, Counter-terrorism Unit, it didn’t inspire much confidence.
So, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the most authoritative Shi’ite leader in Iraq called for volunteers, to form into militias called Popular Mobilization Forces, to join the fight against IS.
Soon there were 60 component militias inside the PMF, many tied to Iran and many instrumental in taking the cities of Fallujah, Anbar, Diyala, Tikrit, and Baiji away from ISIS and restoring them to Government control.
But in Fallujah and Tikrit, especially, there were complaints that these Shi’ite militia fighters were abusing, torturing, summarily executing innocent Sunnis. Their reputation got so bad that PMF units were specifically left out of the campaign to retake Mosul.
Meanwhile, the Iraqi Parliament did 3 things, it passed laws that brought the PMF under government control, merged them into the regular Iraqi National Army and declared that politics, education, and everything but fighting ISIS was off-limits to all the PMFs.
None of those Parliamentary wishes have come true. PMF leaders have declared their independence from the Army and the Government and are already hip deep in politics and education and military missions that could free-lance across the border, inside Syria.
Which could be several kinds of big trouble.
Kenneth Rosen is an American writer who joined the staff of The New York Times in 2014. He has written for The Atlantic, New York Magazine, Foreign Affairs, and the Village Voice, among others.
In 2017 he was a Logan Nonfiction Fellow and has since reported from the Middle East and North Africa. He continues to report and write from across North America.
Rosen’s essays and long-form journalism have also appeared in Tin House, The Rumpus, Narratively,Pacific Standard, Outside Magazine, Roads & Kingdoms, Creative Nonfiction, Guernica, USA Today,VICE, Nowhere Magazine, and The Huffington Post.
His essay “Notes From My Suicide” was nominated for a National Magazine Award (2017) and a Pushcart Prize (2017). His essays have also been nominated for inclusion in the Best American Essays, the Best American Travel Writing, and the Best American Science and Nature Writing anthologies. Rosen was part of the Times team awarded a Silurians Medallion Award in 2015 for its reporting on the shooting death of two NYPD officers.