How the Iraqis Won at Tal Afar

It was a swift victory, one all the more remarkable for being so unexpected.

After the fall of Mosul, which had taken many months and cost innumerable lives, the attention of the Iraqi state and the international coalition, and the watching world, fell on Tal Afar. It was one of the Islamic State’s last major urban territories in Iraq.

It was the site of much military activity in the post-Saddam era, featuring an American military campaign which has become celebrated and mythologized in some circles.

Some old faces feature. H. R. McMaster, now Donald Trump’s national security adviser, had an essential role in the American campaign to take Tal Afar from insurgents. His handling is frequently praised.

But before last week it was also held up as a lesson of sorts. The nature of the battle the Americans had to fight and the way they formulated their approach was meant to present a challenge to present-day Iraqi forces.

Tal Afar’s liberation could not be easy, it was suggested.

It would not be rapid.

That analysis has not held. The city was speedily entered and its districts captured.

Some ISIS fighters were killed; others fled the city, melting away in the face of a decisive advance backed up with overwhelming force.

The combination of many thousands of ground troops, some Iraqi government forces, others made up of the militias for the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), and coalition airpower proved too much for the ISIS fighters remaining.

Their numbers were estimated to be in the low thousands, but it is possible that the real number of militants in the city was much lower.

ISIS could also have employed a strategy of significant withdrawal before the offensive, leaving just enough fighters in Tal Afar to stall the advance and inflict casualties on the incoming forces, while saving men and materiel for another day.

It certainly has a new strategy in mind. The collapsing caliphate of ISIS will not survive long. It is in retreat in Iraq and Syria. Eventually the cities it holds will be taken from it and its proto-state erased from the map.

But the threat ISIS poses is still great and grave. Its forces, those which remain, are not insignificant. It has the resources and the manpower to run devastating insurgency campaigns in Iraq and Syria, even after the victories of its opponents.

If it is able to get many of its forces out alive, avoiding large-scale last stands in cities and towns it holds, the effects of a reorientated ISIS could be extreme.

This is not, therefore, the moment for the global coalition to begin downscaling its role in helping the Iraqi state in particular face this threat. Now is not the moment to look away.

But this is what many Western politicians would prefer to do. Years on, they may mock their predecessors, but they have not learned the lesson of uttering the words ‘mission accomplished’. Their tendency is to avoid action; their wish is to evade responsibility.

And one symptom of that is already being seen: an effective outsourcing of some of the anti-ISIS campaign to people who are not only comparable to the falling sub-state, but whose objectives are similar, and similarly worldwide.

The interference of the Iranian state in Iraq is a matter of public record. Its militias have held an accepted role, as part of the PMF, in the defence of the country against ISIS for years.

But its ambitions are not altruistic. Iranian politicians have little interest in propping up a neighbour in the interests of goodwill. Instead, the Iranian defence of Iraq is an attempted takeover, something which should alarm watchers of all stripes.

Some say this latest material success against ISIS represents little more than the creation of an Iranian pathway through Iraq, all the better to help the Assad regime in Syria cling to power.

The efforts of Iranian proxies have been centred on securing both sides of the Syria–Iraq border, where, in some places, Syrian regime forces already meet Iranian militias on the Iraqi side. How far this will go is in question. Some twitchily estimate that it will end with an Iranian corridor stretching to the Mediterranean.

Such ambitions are making many in other regional governments decidedly nervous.

This is not just the stuff of geopolitical gamesmanship, the sort of thing which can be dismissed with a shrug and a comment that everyone else is, either overtly or covertly, at it.

Iranian expansionism has unfortunate consequences for everyone else.

Its operatives are not nice people and the sentiments they inspire in others are not unproblematic.

Iranian-sponsored Shi’ite jihadists happily commit sectarian crimes in the war against ISIS. Iraq’s victory against ISIS in Mosul was great and came at the cost of much blood and treasure, but it was marred by reprisals and sectarian violence committed by the liberators.

Much of Mosul was damaged or destroyed in that offensive. It is a regrettable feature of the sort of war it is necessary to fight against an enemy like ISIS. But many Iranian cut-outs and allies and sympathizers seemed rather pleased that this fate had befallen Mosul and its inhabitants. Such people then did their best to exacerbate it.

Like the victory in Mosul, the liberation of Tal Afar is a genuine success in the war against ISIS and a step towards the collapse of its caliphate, the moment at which its pretence of statehood will be rendered ridiculous.

Sadly, the conditions exist not only for an ISIS resurgence in insurgency, but also a similarly unpleasant force, this time with very real state backing. These victories are good and necessary and should not be reflexively dismissed. But one should look at who is doing the celebrating and in what way they choose to show approval.

The test for Iraq and its true allies remains facing these two interlinked threats with seriousness and resolve. To do that one must be willing to defer declaring the mission completed for quite some time.

This piece was originally published in The Jerusalem Post.

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