The battle for Mosul will be won; that much is certain. What remains in question is the matter of how this inevitable victory will be won and how it will be remembered.
An operation such as the Islamic State (ISIS) has a plan for when it will be ejected from the last city it holds in Iraq. It will retreat, reorganise and persist in its bid to destabilise Iraq, the region and the world. Its propagandists are skilled. They know how to create images that play on the mind. They know how to create ideas that can serve as the kernels around which more can collect.
They know how to generate memories, false or real, and people have long memories. So, assuredly, do the people of Mosul. They have suffered under ISIS. Their rights have been systematically destroyed and their lives colonised by the all-consuming, all-pervading nature of extreme religion.
Their children have either been subjected to propaganda that ISIS pretends is education or they have had no education at all. Their homes have been taken over, either literally or metaphorically.
The idea of a private, personal life has been effectively abolished under ISIS. This has, perhaps paradoxically, made it more special, more sacred, more deserving of protection.
Families and private lives are contained within the home. This is centrally important, both to those who live within Mosul and all who fight for the city.
Iraqi forces are engaged in liberating Mosul. Their leaders need to defeat ISIS; it is a matter of political necessity. More than that, one hopes, these leaders have an emotive desire to protect those who had, before the advance of the terror state in 2014, been their fellow citizens.
Defeating ISIS, however, is hard; its soldiers fight hard. Also, in a seemingly reasonable attempt to defeat them to liberate the city, Iraqi forces have made several terrible lapses of judgment. They have licensed air strikes on residential areas. They have adopted heavy-handed tactics. As a result, many civilians have been killed. Their homes, those sanctuaries against the many assaults of the caliphate, have been brought down on their heads.
Hundreds of civilians have died in a succession of botched strikes, either on ISIS positions or ISIS fighters.
The Iraqi government, despite what one hopes is its concern for those civilians who were killed, has dissembled. It dragged its feet. It prevented journalists from gaining access to the sites of the strikes. Only when evidence mounted did it concede the inevitable: Coalition air attacks killed hundreds of Mosul residents.
Some Iraqis blamed the Americans, accused the United States of being too happy to strike targets, too keen to dole out ordnance.
Iraqi authorities suggested that ISIS was deliberately putting civilians in danger. That it had violated the homes of Mosul’s residents, that it had used them as human shields. This would not be a surprise. ISIS is hardly a respecter of people or the idea of personal life.
At the same time, though, Iraqi forces must think hard. They must abandon tactics that prioritise a speedy victory when one is inevitable but which see civilian lives as dispensable.
The air strikes must be more carefully rationed, their use restricted. Difficult and costly though it is, and difficult though it may be to take, this is the right thing to do.
The business of fighting is hard. Defeating ISIS was never going to be easy. Iraqi authorities would do well to protect Mosul’s people and ensure a favourable place in their long memories.
This piece was originally published in The Arab Weekly.