The battle for Mosul, between Iraqi security forces and the so-called ‘Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant’ (ISIL), is officially finished. It’s an announcement which comes after more than six months of fighting for the city, and has been described by Iraqi Prime Minister Al-Abadi to be the end of ISIL’s ‘caliphate’. But while it’s easy to view Mosul as a counterterrorism triumph, the ugly truth is that real, strategic successes against ISIL have yet to be seen.
The liberation of Mosul certainly hasn’t ended the threat ISIL poses to Iraq. This is due in part to the flexibility with which ISIL operates: during the 2006 'Anbar Awakening', ISIL—operating then under the brand of ‘Al-Qa’ida in Iraq’—simply ‘waited out’ pressure against it, while during the 2007 surge it adopted such a low profile that some thought it defeated entirely. And it’s being seen again, with media sources describing ongoing activity in rural areas, and a report from West Point’s counterterrorism department indicating at least 1,400 ISIL incidents in urban areas between their liberation and April 2017. The ‘state’ may be vanquished, but the actual organisation is proving adaptable.
This threat to Iraq is unlikely to be defeated, either—at least if events in and around Mosul are any indication. They’ve eroded confidence in a military solution, laying bare the question of how Iraqi security forces will secure all of Iraq if they can’t independently secure cities like Mosul. And they’ve also run the risk of strengthening sectarian narratives, with allegations of Iraqi Army misconduct, and the central government’s politically tone-deaf celebrations. Rather than showing how ISIL can be driven from Iraq, the Battle of Mosul has shown how Iraq could remain a hospitable environment for the organisation.
Unfortunately, when the focus is extended to ISIL’s wider network, the situation doesn’t appear to improve. To a large extent, this is a product of the strategic depth ISIL enjoys through its broader presence. Its core network persists elsewhere in the Middle East, particularly in Syria, Libya, and Yemen; while ISIL affiliates exist outside the region, including former Taliban in Afghanistan, or the ISIL-aligned Filipino militants whose successes were front-page news in ISIL media products. And there’s also the matter of lone or isolated attackers, which ISIL’s information operations have encouraged. It is this depth which means that the ISIL network will likely prove just as durable as the organisation’s elements in Iraq.
The prospects of headway against this broader network aren’t exactly bright. In part, this can be attributed to ISIL’s strategic depth, as well as the inherent survivability of its organisational structure. But equally problematic are shortcomings in Western leadership against it: in some places, such leadership is anaemic or lacking direction; while elsewhere it seems to have been surrendered—particularly in Syria and Libya. Instead of achieving victory or suffering defeat, the United States and its partners appear to have lost confidence in the fight they were supposedly leading. And until this confidence is rediscovered, the prospects of destroying the broader network shall remain just as poor as the likelihood of ending its presence in Iraq.
But what’s more concerning than a lack of progress is that those small victories against ISIL may in fact prove counterproductive. The destruction of ISIL’s ‘caliphate’ is part of this—while the state held political value and had some strategic merit, it imposed on the organisation’s time, manpower, and resources; forced the adoption of a cumbersome management structure; and created centres of gravity for adversaries to attack. Relieving ISIL of this depreciating asset mightn’t lessen the threat—rather, it risks enabling the organisation and its supporters to operate again on their own ugly terms.
Less obvious, though, is that successes against ISIL's leadership could lead to a bigger problem: rapprochement with Al-Qa’ida (AQ). This isn’t without precedent—alliance-building isn’t new to Jihadists, while AQ has proven its ability to mend fences in its dealings with North African partners. And access to ISIL’s experienced core members and its capabilities would be a boost for AQ, but is presently inhibited by ideological and personal differences between the groups’ leaders. But as ISIL’s leadership is eliminated, these personal barriers will eventually disappear, and AQ will eventually be free to assert control over its estranged partner—making successes against ISIL’s leadership, like those against its ‘state’, pyrrhic.
None of this is to dispute that the fall of Mosul is a victory of some sort against ISIL. On the contrary, it marks the end of the organisation’s state-building enterprise in Iraq, and foreshadows a future victory in Raqqa. But victory is a political diagnosis, not a reality—and the reality is that while ISIL’s ‘state’ is on the path to destruction, meaningful successes against the actual organisation could remain elusive for some time yet.
Phillip Etches is an International Security and Middle Eastern Studies student at the Australian National University, with an interest in networked violent non-state actors.