The Moral Hazards of Defeating Islamic State

By Avie Englert

It’s 2017 and the Islamic State is losing. Should we be rejoicing? The days where IS was conquering vast swathes of eastern Syria and western Iraq, scything through the hapless Iraqi armed forces like a hot knife through butter, are but a distant memory. Now the Middle East’s most notorious jihadist group is under pressure in all corners of its vast, so-called “Caliphate.” Politicians and media outlets waste no time in trumpeting metrics of progress. Oh, Iraqi forces have retaken close to half of Mosul? Damn, that’s awesome. You’re telling me that Turkish-backed rebel groups in Syria are closing in on Al-Bab, the largest city in Aleppo province? Thank goodness. Now the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces are at the doorstep of Raqqa, the Islamic State’s “capital city”? Wow, I guess those crazy militants are almost defeated. It may not have taken three days, as per President Trump’s completely unrealistic campaign promise, but it looks like the end of the Islamic State is approaching. I guess I can sleep soundly at night.

It’s easy for us, ensconced in the relative safety and comfort of North America, separated by a whole lot of ocean from the horrors that people experience every day in Iraq and Syria, to celebrate the demise of an extremist group that appears to be the closest thing to objectively “evil” on the face of the earth. From such a far distance, we tend to simplify. We look at Mosul, Al-Bab, and Raqqa as abstract points on a map. We see the Middle East as a region denoted by the contours of IS-controlled territory. We distinguish good from evil.

We also tend to support political decisions based on emotional reactions. The invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 was largely unavoidable from a Western standpoint because of the tremendous emotional urge to respond to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. We see similar dynamics at play in the fight against the Islamic State. When black-clad jihadists publicly behead an American photojournalist, or when IS-trained and equipped gunmen kill dozens of innocent people in downtown Paris, it is hard not to get angry. It is hard not to demand immediate action, some way to respond in kind. Many politicians feel the same way and are happy to oblige our sentiments, perhaps even scoring some domestic political points along the way. How else would you explain President Barack Obama’s willingness to undertake a large-scale bombing campaign in Syria, despite previous policies of non-intervention? But we don’t suffer from the consequences of these policies.

From a policy standpoint, it’s often not a good idea to rush things. Starting and finishing a paper the night before it is due will probably get you a B at best, unless you are some sort of demigod. Executing a military operation with not enough time to prepare will impact far more than your precious GPA. The lives of soldiers and civilians are at stake.

Now consider what happens when the world demands swift military action against the Islamic State. Of course, the fight to reclaim Iraqi territory from the Islamic State is worth fighting. However, it does matter how it is fought, which brings us to Mosul. The largest city in northern Iraq was once a bustling economic hub. In 2014, it was the Islamic State’s largest prize when it expanded its “Caliphate” into Iraq. Now it is a site of destruction, as Iraqi and Kurdish military forces attempt to wrest control of the city from IS.

When pressures reach the Iraqi government in Baghdad to take back territory, this affects their decision-making. Taking back Mosul is a key benchmark for success in the fight against the Islamic State. Supposedly, IS will be kicked out of Iraq once Mosul falls, according to military officials. All the more reason for Baghdad to assemble a force together as soon as possible.

But what does taking back Mosul really mean if the cost in civilian and military lives is exceedingly high? A recent Frontline documentary illustrates the horrendous difficulties faced by Iraqi government forces in fighting IS militants district by district, block by block, house by house. The liberators seem ill-equipped for the formidable task at hand, and the logistical arrangements for supplies and medical care appear to be poorly-planned. Every day, Iraqi soldiers are harassed by mortar attacks, snipers, ambushes, suicide car and truck bombs, and even drone strikes (as in the small drones that normal people can buy). Such a scene would make for a challenging mission in a Call of Duty game. In real life, it is a constant nightmare that exerts a considerable toll on the city and its people.

We must also consider the fact that many of the Sunnis in western Iraq initially welcomed the Islamic State as it rolled through unopposed, because the Shi’ite-dominated Iraqi government was abusing their rights. Now these feelings began to change as the Islamic State turned out to be every bit as dictatorial, but this does not change the fact that the largely Shi’ite Iraqi forces will view Mosul’s civilian population in a certain light. Human rights abuses are already underway, as suspected IS sympathizers and collaborators are arrested, tortured, and executed. The same drama is underway around IS strongholds in Syria. Within this context, it is difficult to for us to truly say who is “good” and who is “evil” on the streets of Mosul.

In the fight against the Islamic State, we need to move past simple solutions for problems framed in a way that removes all of the complexity on the ground. We need to consider the well-being of civilians caught up in the fighting in a way that complements military operations that are properly planned and supported. In the case of Iraq, the government needs to build trust amongst Mosul’s population – not just because it is morally justified, but also because it is necessary to achieve long-lasting peace and stability. Otherwise, another Islamic State will emerge after the current one no longer exists.