Hope everyone has had an awesome week! (And if you haven’t, just think: We’re just 10 days, 11 hours, and 15 minutes until the election is finally here!! After that, we can get back to checking facebook and being united and friendly again!)
Geez… Don’t get me started on the election.
But speaking of politics, and trying to be more informed, I wanted to share this recent news account regarding the battle for Mosul.
Like many (all?) Americans, I’ve been happy to hear that Iraqi forces are now liberating the city from ISIS control. And I’ve been following it pretty closely.
But this sobering account from a former Marine turned writer, who recently traveled to Mosul to witness the battle, has really dampened my enthusiasm.
Here are just a few of the highlights:
Iraq vs ISIS? Or Sunni versus Shia?
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST: Elliot Ackerman is a decorated Marine who now makes a living as a writer. He fought in Iraq with the Marines and the Special Forces, and he recently went back to Iraq on assignment for Esquire magazine. He spent time with Iraqi counterterrorism forces who are fighting to retake Mosul from ISIS. These troops have been trained by the U.S. They’re well-equipped, and they are supposed to represent all of Iraq. But Ackerman says that’s not how it looked to him.
ELLIOT ACKERMAN: From the back of their Humvees, you know, they’re flying the Shia flags as they go towards Mosul. You know, and these are the supposedly secular forces that are – you’re not supposed to be participating in any of the sectarian violence.You know, in the West, when we think of the Islamic State, I think what’s first and foremost in our consciousness are these terrorist attacks, whether it’s Paris or the Istanbul airport or the cells that have operated in the United States. But when you’re on the ground in Iraq, what’s really evident is that, you know, this is a Sunni-versus-Shia fight. And the Sunnis are represented by the Islamic State. And brutal as they are, a lot of everyday Sunnis are sort of withholding judgment to see what it’s going to be like under the Iraqi security forces.
And when the supposedly nonsectarian security forces come in flying Shiite banners, you know, it certainly sends the wrong message. And it’s probably in the long run going to make work more difficult for the Iraqi security forces in securing Mosul and winning over the support of the Sunni population there.
Fallujah, 12 years after its second liberation.
MCEVERS: You also went back to Fallujah. That’s a place where you fought in what’s called the second battle for Fallujah in late 2004. Fallujah has now gone through its fourth major battle. Iraqi forces have routed ISIS out of that city. What’s it like now?
ACKERMAN: Well, progress in Fallujah has been very slow. Only about a quarter of the population has come back to the city, and there’s still no water in the city. There’s no power. There’s no sanitation. So the people who are there basically bring in their own potable water, and they’re living off of generators. So if Fallujah is any predictor of what the rebuilding of a Mosul is like, you know, there are significant challenges ahead.
I only share this — I’m sorry, I know it’s depressing — because I’m increasingly convinced that things over there, and in Syria, too, are far more complex and difficult to understand than we could ever begin to imagine.
I can still remember before the Iraq War listening to one of President George Bush’s advisers saying the Shia and Sunni were like Methodists and Baptists; two religions that mostly got along. Clearly, we’ve learned that’s not the case.
It’s also worth noting that Iran and Iraq could become even more significant allies, since Iraq is 60 to 65 percent Shia and only 32 to 37 percent Sunni, according to the CIA.
This matters because before our invasion, Iraq was led by Saddam and the country served as a balance to Iran, which is 90 to 95 percent Shia.
Iraq also served as a buffer between Iran and Saudi Arabia, our long-time ally which is nearly90 percent Sunni.
Clearly, with the wide-spread fighting in Syria, Yemen, and a few other places in the region, we’re witnessing a war between the Sunni and Shia religions. Or perhaps you could term it Saudi Arabia versus Iran, with a whole lot of other actors involved such as the United States and Russia.
For me, I can’t get over the complexity of the situation. We’re essentially helping the Iraqi Army and Shia militias, backed by Iran, take back an Iraqi city from ISIS, who’s getting much of its funding from Saudi Arabia.
I know it’s so simple to rally around the flag here in the states and think, “ISIS is bad, look at all the terrorist attacks, let’s go crush them,” but I’m not so sure it’s that clear. We’ve been fooled before (see Iraq invasion: oil will pay for war; we’ll be greeted as liberators; etc.) and my radar is increasingly going off that we don’t have a clue about what’s really going on over there.
I just can’t get over the fact that Iraqi Army forces are openly flying Shia flags from their vehicles. This is so much more complex than Iraq versus ISIS.
That’s why it’s dangerous to want to send lots of ground troops into the region, to help destroy ISIS in Syria. We’re in the middle of a very ugly family fight, and I’m not sure either side is real big fans of ours. I’m also not real sure either host nation, Iran or Saudi Arabia, has placed us on their Christmas list, either.
I know we can’t completely withdraw, since that would further open the door for the Russians, who have already stepped in too much, but I’m a little tired of the pundits who think crushing ISIS would be easy if we just sent in a bunch of ground troops. I’m not saying we couldn’t defeat them (at least initially), but I AM saying I’m not in a hurry to rebuild Syria, as we tried to rebuild Iraq. (See note above about how little Fallujah has improved even after 12 years.)
We spent at least $1.1 trillion on Iraq, according to the most recent figures, and the country isn’t exactly a tourist hot spot.
I wish I knew what the answers were, but I don’t. And I dare say most of the pundits we listen to, don’t as well.
Yet while we don’t know the answers, it’s important to acknowledge that this is a dense, confusing topic. So the next time your loud-mouthed uncle or neighbor is bellowing about sending in more troops to fight ISIS, just tell them you think it’s not quite that simple.
Keep the faith,
Stan R. Mitchell
Stan R. Mitchell, author and prior Marine, is best known for his Nick Woods Marine Sniper series, which has remained in the Top 100 on Amazon for more than three years. The series has also been picked up by Audible.com for a multi-book audio deal. Additional works include a Western thriller, detective series, and World War II story.