The United States has played a leading role in fighting the Islamic State, but now it must prepare for the fights that will take place at negotiating tables and reconciliation conferences. Iraqis recognize that the coming months will be difficult. In a recent visit to Iraq, our interlocutors from various political stripes emphasized the enormity of the challenges facing the country after the expected expulsion of the Islamic State from Mosul. If we are not to make the same mistake of winning the war and again losing the peace, the Trump administration should look beyond the focus on the current battle and develop a layered and sustainable strategy to help Iraq move toward stability. While this strategy will include military and aid components, it will need to have a strong political and diplomatic component. War, including civil war, is the continuation of politics by other means. If Iraq does not get its politics in order, the country’s political struggles will continue to play out in other violent ways that Iraqis have come to know too well, and the specter of more sectarian conflict, radicalization, and terrorism will persist.
First, to be sure, a defeat of the Islamic State in Mosul will not be the end of the kinetic battle against the terrorist organization in Iraq. Though 70 percent of Mosul has been liberated, there are still an estimated 400,000 people behind Islamic State lines in the city. A fair number of these are families of Islamic State fighters who came to Mosul from Diyala, Anbar, and Tikrit. While Iraqi forces have retaken major cities, Islamic State fighters are still entrenched in about 40 percent of Kirkuk province, including the districts of Hawija, Riyadh, and Rashad, which lie on the western side of the province. They also control Tal Afar, parts of Sinjar province, and in Anbar they hold the cities ofAna, Rawa, and Qaim, all close to the border with Syria. Even if defeated there, they could head for the less accessible hills and deserts of Diyala and Anbar provinces, and as long as they also have havens across the border in Syria—most prominently in Raqqa and Deir Ezzor—they can always return. Still, their defeat in Mosul will mean the end of their experiment in religious rule in Iraq and a great blow to their prestige and appeal.
The ongoing kinetic threats justify maintaining a medium-term U.S. military presence around current troop levels of 5,000-6,000 personnel to maintain support, training, and cooperation with the Iraqi armed forces. This is what the Iraqi government has requested, and the United States should provide this assistance. Indeed, President Trump has himself said “we shouldn’t have gone in; but certainly we shouldn’t have left.”