Last week, retired U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus, who commanded coalition forces in Iraq from 2007 to 2008 and Afghanistan from 2010 to 2011 and who served as CIA director from 2011 to 2012, published an opinion column in the Washington Post noting that the biggest challenge in Mosul will not be defeating the Islamic State (I.S.), but rather trying to figure out what to do with Iraq’s second-largest city after it is liberated.
He is right.
In his article, Petraeus pointed out that Mosul and its surrounding Nineveh Province is “one of Iraq’s most diverse and challenging” regions, with significant populations of the country’s three main ethnic groups: the Shiite, the Sunni and the Kurds, and plenty of smaller clans and religious sects.
This multiethnic nature of Mosul makes it one of the most ungovernable regions of one of the most ungovernable countries on Earth.
That is why, Petraeus said, that once Iraqi and collation security forces finally manage to expel the jihadist extremists from the city, the real work of trying “to bring governance, stability and reconstruction” will have to begin.
Drawing on his own experience in 2003, when he led the 101st Airborne Division into a tumultuous Mosul with roughly the same objective, Petraeus said the only feasible way to instill a semblance of stability in the city was to establish a representative interim council to work together for the common good.
But, as evidenced by the deteriorating chaos in Iraq’s current so-called national government, getting the diverse ethnic and tribal factions to work together is a near-impossible task.
Mutual animosities and vengeances date back centuries and are passed down from generation-to-generation like precious family heirlooms.
In 2003, Petraeus said that the U.S. military “ensured that the provincial council included representatives of every district in Nineveh, of every major religion (Sunni, Shiite, Christian, Shabak), of each ethnic group (Arabs, Kurds, Yazidis, Turkmen), of every additional major societal element (Mosul University academics, businessmen, retired generals) and of each major tribe not already sufficiently represented.”
That hodgepodge of cultural and religious groups then elected an interim provincial council that, in turn, elected an interim governor, which managed to patch together a workable society.
But the big difference between then and now, Petraeus noted, is that in 2003, the U.S. military had the legal authority and military prowess to enforce compliance with the plan.
This time around, there will be no foreign entity to make sure that all various parties play by the same rules and work together.
“Leaders of the various Iraqi elements will likely have their own militias, and there will be endless rounds of brinkmanship on the road to post-Islamic State boundaries, governing structures and distribution of power and resources,” Petraeus said.
And, he added, should those challenges not be enough to condemn the provisional council plan to failure from its get-go, “others will emanate from Iran and the Shiite militias it supports, from Turkey and Iraq’s Sunni Arab neighbors, from the Kurdish Regional Government that understandably wants to retain the disputed internal boundary areas that its Peshmerga now largely control.”
Petraeus concludes by saying that while the 2003 plan was initially successful, it was ultimately “undone” by the stubbornness and squabbling of Iraqi Shiite authorities in Baghdad.
“These failures meant that the Sunni insurgency ultimately intensified in Mosul, as it already had in the other Sunni Arab areas of Iraq,” he said.
“The Sunni Arabs in Nineveh came to see few reasons to support the new Iraq; indeed, they perceived many to actively or tacitly oppose it.”
The West has been trying to instill values of inclusive, representative and responsive governance into Iraqi culture for more than a decade now to no avail.
Democracy and tolerance are concepts that are alien to and even juxtaposed to regional Islamic traditions.
Tribal hatreds and resentments run deep in Mosul and the Nineveh Province.
Petraeus said that the “only way forward is to squarely face the challenges, work to build relationships and press the many disparate parties to find common ground on the issues — aided by the U.S.-led coalition.”
That’s a tall order, even for the likes of Petraeus.
Undoing nearly 14 centuries of sectarian odium is going to take a lot more than a diplomatic statesmanship.
Thérèse Margolis can be reached at email@example.com.