Last week it was announced that, following their capture of Mosul, Iraqi forces were beginning their offensive on the Islamic State stronghold of Tal Afar. Similar scenes are being played out across the Middle East, where everyone from the Iraqi government to the Kurdish Peshmerga is playing their part in the Caliphate’s downfall. With power bases falling, funds drying up and fighters haemorrhaging from the ranks, the situation of IS can be summed up in Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi’s recent ultimatum: ‘surrender or die’.
However, Baghdad and its Western allies would be unwise to celebrate prematurely. The defeat of IS in the field does not equate to a decisive victory over insurgent Islamist fundamentalism. IS has repeatedly stated that it will never fully succumb to military action as it can always resort to the inhiyaz strategy: the concept of a temporary dispersion into the desert. As a largely guerrilla organisation with strong roots in local communities, it will have no trouble melting away. Indeed this has already happened once before: when US troops defeated the proto-IS ‘Islamic State of Iraq’ group in 2007, the militants retreated into the countryside before staging a comeback in 2013. The chaos created by the Syrian War gave them the opportunity they required.
Whether it be due to ineffective counterinsurgency tactics, sympathetic locals or even accidents of geography, pro-Western forces have always struggled to decisively defeat Islamist militants. The British Empire couldn’t defeat the mujahideen in Afghanistan, the Russians grappled with Ansaar fighters in Chechnya and NATO seems unlikely to stamp out the resurgent Taliban. IS militants can be defeated in a pitched battle, as the Kurds are demonstrating in Raqqa, but their illusory base of support is harder to root out. Due to the current focus on defeating IS in the field, little is being done to address what happens away from the battle. Tactical airstrikes, the preferred modus operandi of the US-led coalition, often serves to turn the local populace against their would-be liberators. For many, the thought of foreign powers raining fire upon their homes is enough to lead them to question Western aid. Donald Trump’s attempt to ban these ‘liberated’ people from entering his country only spreads doubt further.
The Iraqi government – who are gradually learning to cope with the decline of US influence in the Middle East – must also address those issues likely to stoke extremism in the future. Whilst the campaign in Iraq may be drawing to a close, the war in Syria has been going on since before the rise of IS and is likely to continue long after its collapse. The colossal human and economic damage caused by Bashar Al-Assad’s bloody attempt to thwart opposition has and will carry on spilling into neighbouring countries, increasing economic strain and forcing different ethnic groups into collision. In a country as lawless as Iraq, this fatal combination of weakened authority, economic hardship and inflamed social tensions could easily spark another extremist insurgency.
There will have to be a seismic shift in Middle Eastern politics to put an end to the cycle of fundamentalism. The entire region is riddled with insecurity: Syria is engulfed in war, nationalist groups are clashing with autocratic governments and the United States is withdrawing from its global policing role. All signs point to the development of the kind of instability that breeds extremism. In the case of Iraq, the country must be able to rapidly reform once the current campaign is concluded. It is vital that (in conjunction with the increasingly autonomous Kurds) it manages to secure its borders, stabilise its economy and prove that it can protect its people.
Iraq should heed the sad example of Afghanistan: although the Taliban were driven out in 2001, they swiftly recovered large tracts of land once NATO forces started leaving in 2015. US troops are now being re-committed as the Afghan army and police have proved insufficient. The same could easily happen in Iraq. If Baghdad does not take note, it won’t be long before the Caliphate returns from the desert once again.