America’s war to oust the Iraqi dictator Saddam Houssein lasted a matter of months. The war against his one-time allies, the Sunni insurgents dismissed by then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld as just a few “dead-enders” has lasted almost a decade and a half, and it’s not over yet.
Despite big hammer blows, like the January 20th American air strike on the town of Al Shafeh, Syria, near the border with Iraq, that killed an estimated 150 Islamic State fighters, the number of jihadists believed to have escaped America’s ISIS mole-whacking operation is believed to be in the thousands. Hundreds of them, military and security experts say, have almost certainly fled the combat zone and relocated to Turkey and on to Europe and elsewhere. Hundreds more have formed fighting cells everywhere from Iraq’s western desert to the eastern border of Iraqi Kurdistan and Iran, where the US is still providing air cover to Iraqi ground forces trying to track down a Kurdish ISIS guerrilla force called The White Banners.
America’s active mission to “annihilate” Islamic State fighters is expected to last years after last summer’s official declarations of victory.
The recovery of Iraqi and Syrian cities from which Islamic State occupiers were expelled, cities that once were home to a quarter-million people like Fallujah or Raqqa, or half a million like Ramadi or two million like Mosul could take another decade, or more. If these cities ever recover.
Ramadi, the capitol of the Sunni-majority Iraqi province Al-Anbar, was liberated more than 2 years ago. The fight to expel IS fighters was brutal. Whole neighborhoods were flattened. All 5 bridges that crossed the Euphrates River were destroyed. 2 years later, repairs have started on just 3 of them, and an estimated 70% of the city is still described as badly damaged or destroyed. Three-quarters of the city’s schools remain closed.
Still, reporter Susannah George of the Associated Press visited Ramadi and reported more than half the old population had returned and were using extended family savings to rebuild their homes brick by brick. According to members of the Ramadi City Council, little help has come from the Shi’ite dominated Iraqi National Government in Baghdad.
Mosul was 4 times bigger than Ramadi, and most estimates are that the damage done in liberating Mosul from the Islamic State was even worse. And the mis-match between what Mosul needs to recover and the resources, and perhaps the will of the Iraqi government to direct a recovery of a Sunni-majority city, seems even more drastic than in Ramadi.
While memories of war are searing, memories of post-war can last, like post-war itself, even longer. The iconic power of pictures of devastated, liberated Mosul may echo in Islamic communities around the world much longer and much stronger than recollections of how awful ISIS’ rule was or that it was the jihadists’ strategy to eliminate all less destructive options for their endgame.
The Iraqi government says it will cost $100 billion to repair war damage across their country. Officials in Mosul say it will cost $100 billion to revive their city alone. The Trump Administration has made it clear, little of that money will come from America.
So where does that leave the people of Mosul. Most of them are presently in refugee camps, a temporary affliction which no one sees as a long-term solution.
Lori Hinnant is an International Security Correspondent for the Associated Press (AP) based in Paris. She specializes in Business and Finance, France, and Technology. Her work has been featured by the AP as well as Yahoo, ABC News, The Washington Post, Time Magazine, Chicago Tribune, Salon, and Fox News.