“Victory” In Mosul: Fighting Well and the Horrors of “Winning”

| August 2, 2017
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Haider al-Abadi declares victory over ISIS. Photo Credit: Tasnim news via Wikimedia

 

 

“People talk sometimes of bestial cruelty, but that’s a great injustice and insult to the beasts; a beast can never be so cruel as a man, so artistically cruel.”
–Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

Victory Declared

On July 10, 2017, victory was declared against the so-called Islamic State in their Iraqi stronghold of Mosul. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi proclaimed from the edge of Mosul, “We announce absolute victory for Iraq and all Iraqis” amid pockets of ISIS resistance.[i] The spokesperson for the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, named Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR), congratulated al-Abadi via Twitter on the “historic victory in #Mosul vs. evil enemy.”[ii]  Along with that tweet was a press release further congratulating Iraqi Security Forces on their “remarkable progress against ISIS while making extraordinary efforts to safeguard civilian lives.” President Trump stated: “We mourn the thousands of Iraqis brutally killed by ISIS and the millions of Iraqis who suffered at the hands of ISIS. We grieve with the Iraqi people for the loss of the heroic soldiers and Peshmerga who gave their lives to restore life to their country, and we honor their sacrifice.”[iii] So, what did this victory look like in Mosul?

If you have not seen images or footage of the destruction of Mosul, you must look at the Foreign Policy before and after satellite images, as well as the Associated Press drone footage of the Old City; it is devastating indeed.[iv] Is this what “absolute victory” looks like in the perpetual War on Terror? Iraq’s second largest city has been left in complete ruins, with hundreds of thousands displaced and countless killed. If these images are of a liberated Mosul, then we must ask what is wrong with our notion of victory today, and how might we rethink this outdated notion in the War on Terror. Moreover, we must ask what is lost by “winning” in an unethical manner. Although OIR recognizes that this is a somewhat hollow victory and that the war with ISIS will continue, the “ethical way” in which this battle was won is far more questionable than the press release statements would let on. With the United States unwilling to have “troops on the ground” beyond some Special Forces advisors, the fight in Mosul has relied heavily on Iraqi Security Forces. Ideally, Iraqi forces should understand the local community far better than an 18-year-old U.S. Marine on the streets of Iraq; however, the dynamics are far more complicated.

Jus in Bello in Mosul and the Necessity of Fighting Well

Just war thinking informs us that victory is not just about winning the battle by any means necessary, but, if it is to be considered a “victory” at all, fighting in an ethical manner (in line with the jus in bello principles of discrimination and proportionality). As I have argued elsewhere, the jus in bello criterion of discrimination is increasingly difficult in ISIS-occupied cities and towns.[v] As civilian life is known to be extremely harsh under ISIS-rule, many are forced to “join” or they and their families are threatened with a brutal death. How does one discriminate in war between the “true believers” of ISIS and the victims forced to join the fight? Pundits sometimes point out that many in Sunni-majority Mosul celebrated as ISIS liberated the city from Iraqi government control in 2014; therefore they were willing participants and could thus be targeted. Yet, this misunderstands the complex dynamics at play in pre-ISIS Iraq; there were celebrations partly because the Iraqi Army (mostly Shia) had a “bad reputation in Mosul” and was “accused of sectarian abuses and illegal detentions.”[vi] Moreover, this feeling of liberation was short-lived as the brutal life under ISIS control commenced. So calling the citizens of Mosul willing participants is misleading at best, and understanding the complexity of this dynamic is essential for answering the difficult ethical questions that arise in the declaration “victory” in Mosul last month.

PBS Frontline had a two part series (Battle for Iraq/Hunting ISIS) that fearlessly shows the on-the-ground reality in Mosul following Iraqi Defense Forces and Iraq’s elite Golden Division attempting to clear the city building by building.[vii] In watching the Golden Division’s best sniper—Mustafa Al-Ghazi—one can see the intense jus in bello dilemmas faced by those soldiers who know and understand Iraqi people and culture better than foreign occupiers would. Away from the abstractions of contemporary revisionist just war theorizing, the discrimination dynamics play out real-time in front of your eyes in a chilling discussion. As Al-Ghazi and his partner (Alawi) take their position on the rooftop in a house of trembling and terrified civilians, they discuss whether or not to pull the trigger on suspected ISIS militants on the streets below:

 

MUSTAFA AL-GHAZI: There he is [AL-GHAZI fires his weapon and reloads].
ALAWI: ISIS?
MUSTAFA AL-GHAZI: Yes, he’s behind the door. He’s not on the road. [AL-GHAZI fires again and reloads then pauses to look at Alawi]. Alawi, but these ones are families.
ALAWI: I swear they’re ISIS [AL-GHAZI peers through the sight of his sniper].
MUSTAFA AL-GHAZI: But they have no weapons.
ALAWI: But they know ISIS (emphasis added).
MUSTAFA AL-GHAZI: Look at this one running [AL-GHAZI moves his finger back onto the trigger and begins to squeeze].  Look at him. What do you think he is? [his finger twitches back and forth on and off the trigger] This one, look at this one. Aren’t they families? [he removes his finger and looks up to Alawi]
ALAWI: Maybe.
MUSTAFA AL-GHAZI: So what shall I do?
ALAWI: Yes, this one is a family.
MUSTAFA AL-GHAZI: Yes, that’s what I’m saying!
ALAWI: What the hell. Looks like a wedding.[viii]

I share this particular story for two important reasons. First and foremost, to demonstrate the immensely difficult ethical dilemmas that contemporary urban warfare against ISIS poses and as an example of Al-Ghazi fighting as justly as one can in these circumstances. Second, to display that, no matter how “precise” the technology of the bombing munitions from the OIR coalition, adhering to discrimination and proportionality is nearly impossible from the skies above in such urban settings where civilians are intermingled with ISIS fighters. The next section explores the emptiness of victory when jus in bello criteria are violated, and questions the veracity of the “extraordinary measures” taken by Iraqi Security Forces to protect civilians—measures that we praised them for.

The Horrors of “Winning”

In the “Battle for Iraq” documentary, one Iraqi soldier brags to the documentary crew about torturing suspected ISIS members. Although they have strict orders from their commander Lt. Col. Muntadher “to treat captives humanely…away from the fighting, one of the soldiers watches videos of ISIS suspects being tortured.”[ix] The video shows a man screaming as the soldiers pour boiling water over his half naked body, bragging, “We scalded his skin off!”[x] After “victory” was declared in Mosul, the Middle East Eye (MEE) reported the first hand accounts from Iraqi soldiers how this hollow “victory” was achieved in the most horrific way possible. “‘We killed them all,’ he says quietly. ‘Daesh [ISIS], men, women and children. We killed everyone.’”[xi] Horrific images fill the page of body parts of uncounted corpses being bulldozed in the rubble of what was once a vibrant city on the banks of the Tigris River, “feet are the most distinguishable remains; there are many poking from the rubble.”[xii] One major in the Iraqi Forces told MEE that, “‘after liberation was announced, the order was given to kill anything or anyone that moved. It was not the right thing to do,’ he says. ‘Most of the Daesh fighters surrendered. They gave themselves up, and we just killed them.’”[xiii]

The horrors continued long after “victory” as a video released on July 17 showed Iraqi helicopters firing on people attempting to escape the Old City by swimming across the river.[xiv] The stunningly calm and tranquil blue waters of the Tigris are pierced with bullets and missiles as desperate people attempt to swim its daunting width; as the video pans out, you can again see the city utterly destroyed. “Corpses line the western banks of the Tigris. Killed in air strikes, fighting and executions, or having died of hunger or thirst, some have washed ashore while others float in the blue waters. Some of the bodies are small. They were children.”[xv] “Nearby, soldiers pose for victory photos before an Iraqi flag, the pole planted atop a pile of rubble and body parts. They have become inured to the landscape of death over which they move. The brutality of this long conflict and the barbarity of their enemy have taken their toll on the Iraqi armed forces. There is little humanity left.”[xvi]

As our news is filled with the endless cycles of scandals or cabinet crises, Mosul makes the news to declare victory and the American public is imbued in the reality TV show our political system has become. As Trump declared victory and “mourn[ed] the thousands of Iraqis brutally killed by ISIS” he forgot to look again to see that the “extraordinary efforts to safeguard civilian lives” praised by the OIR spokesperson were an illusion all along. Once “victory” was achieved, we turned a blind eye. As the Middle East director of Human Rights Watch aptly put it: “Given the widespread abuses by Iraqi forces and the government’s abysmal record on accountability, the U.S. should take a hard look at its involvement with Iraqi forces.”[xvii] Victory is indeed meaningless if it must be won in this unethical and horrific way. We must take Cian O’Driscoll’s warning about the hollow victory of an “ethical war” to heart: “victory, then, is apparently both an enduring idea, and one whose time has passed.”[xviii] Ultimately, Mosul illustrates how victory at all costs is no victory at all, and demonstrates the urgency of O’Driscoll’s call for just war thinkers to re-conceptualize what victory might look like in the contemporary War on Terror.

 

[i] George, Susannah. “U.S.-Led Coalition Says Iraqi Forces Have Retaken Mosul in ‘Decisive Blow’ to ISIL.” Time July 10, 2017. Available at: http://time.com/4851775/mosul-isis-victory/.

[ii] OIR Spokesman. Twitter Post. July 10, 2017, 10:15 AM. https://twitter.com/OIRSpox/status/884461117308903428 ; OIR Spokesman. Twitter Post. July 10, 2017, 10:47 AM. https://twitter.com/OIRSpox/status/884469056199417856.

[iii] Shelbourne, Mallory. “Trump Administration Congratulate Iraq on Liberation of Mosul.” The Hill. July 10, 2017. Available at:  http://thehill.com/homenews/administration/341384-trump-administration-congratulates-iraq-on-liberation-of-mosul .

[iv] “Drone Video Shows Mosul Destruction, Airstrikes.” Associated Press. July 10, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E4nlpnO9TYc; Chase-Lubitz, Jesse and Adam Griffiths. “Mosul, Before and After, in Satellite Images.” Foreign Policy. July 14, 2017. Available at: http://foreignpolicy.com/2017/07/14/mosul-before-and-after-in-satellite-images/.

[v] Emery, John R. (Forthcoming) “Balancing Security, Risk, and Uncertainty in a World of Contested and Fragmented Sovereignty” In Daniel Brunstetter and Jean-Vincent Holeindre (Eds.), The Ethics of War and Peace Revisited: Moral Challenges in an Era of Contested and Fragmented Sovereignty. Washington DC: Georgetown University Press.

[vi] “Battle for Iraq: Transcript.” PBS Frontline. Available at: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/film/battle-for-iraq/transcript/.

[vii] “Battle for Iraq/Hunting ISIS” PBS Frontline. Season 35 Episode 8, aired January 1, 2017. Viewable at: http://www.pbs.org/video/frontline-battle-iraqhunting-isis/.

[viii] “Hunting ISIS: Transcript.” PBS Frontline. Available at: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/film/hunting-isis/transcript/.

[ix] “Battle for Iraq: Transcript.” PBS Frontline. Available at: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/film/battle-for-iraq/transcript/.

[x] “Battle for Iraq: Transcript.” PBS Frontline. Available at: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/film/battle-for-iraq/transcript/.

[xi] “Mosul’s bloodbath: ‘We killed everyone – IS, men, women, children’” Middle East Eye. July 26, 2017. Available at: http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/mosuls-final-bloodbath-we-killed-everyone-men-women-children-1721780413.

[xii] “Mosul’s bloodbath: ‘We killed everyone – IS, men, women, children’” Middle East Eye. July 26, 2017. Available at: http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/mosuls-final-bloodbath-we-killed-everyone-men-women-children-1721780413.

[xiii] “Mosul’s bloodbath: ‘We killed everyone – IS, men, women, children’” Middle East Eye. July 26, 2017. Available at: http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/mosuls-final-bloodbath-we-killed-everyone-men-women-children-1721780413.

[xiv] “Video: Iraqi helicopters fire on alleged ISIS militants fleeing across Tigris in Mosul.” Rudaw. July 18, 2017. Viewable at: http://www.rudaw.net/english/middleeast/iraq/18072017.

[xv] “Mosul’s bloodbath: ‘We killed everyone – IS, men, women, children’” Middle East Eye. July 26, 2017. Available at: http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/mosuls-final-bloodbath-we-killed-everyone-men-women-children-1721780413 \.

[xvi] “Mosul’s bloodbath: ‘We killed everyone – IS, men, women, children’” Middle East Eye. July 26, 2017. Available at: http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/mosuls-final-bloodbath-we-killed-everyone-men-women-children-1721780413.

[xvii] “U.S.-Trained Iraqi Army Unit Committed War Crimes in Mosul: HRW.” New York Times. July 27, 2017. Available at:  https://www.nytimes.com/reuters/2017/07/27/world/middleeast/27reuters-mideast-crisis-iraq-watch.html?_r=0.

[xviii] O’Driscoll, Cian. (Forthcoming). “After Disneyland: The (Hollow) Victory of Just War.” In Daniel Brunstetter and Jean-Vincent Holeindre (Eds.), The Ethics of War and Peace Revisited: Moral Challenges in an Era of Contested and Fragmented Sovereignty. Washington DC: Georgetown University Press.

 

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