It is likely that Iraqi security forces and international partners will soon liberate Mosul from ISIS’ three-year hold. However, without proper governance over the city, security gains will be fleeting. In 2014, before ISIS’ takeover of Mosul, security in the city was divided amongst several competing political loyalties: Shiite-led Baghdad controlled the security forces, Sunni Arabs competed with Kurdish groups for control the provincial government, and local tribes followed whoever they deemed most powerful.
Today, a consensus to defeat ISIS keeps these parties working together. However, it is temporary, as once ISIS is kicked out of Mosul, a whole new set of issues must be addressed to resolve anticipated governance problem. At the moment, there are three working schools of thought: establish a heavy handed political government administered by Baghdad, strengthen the current provincial government, or authorize a provisional military government. Of the three options, it appears that the best path to pursue is to implement a provisional military government with an accompanying Mosul Council of Elders.
The first option for a post-ISIS Mosul is to have politically appointed Baghdad loyalists administer a provincial government with a heavy presence of federal counterterrorism forces, the Iraqi Army, Federal Police, and the Iranian-backed Shiite militias known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). Baghdad would do this to ensure Mosul remains under the central government’s control, does not empower Kurdish aspirations for independence, and keeps ISIS underground. Proponents for this option argue that only a heavy security presence in the city controlled by Baghdad via trusted security forces will achieve this because local political leaders are either weak or not trusted enough to secure Mosul. The problem with this approach is it would rely heavily on outsiders, particularly Shiite politicians and security officials. More than a decade of central government attempts to control Mosul through outsiders and proxies have failed and were a critical factor in the fall of the provincial capital to ISIS in 2014.
The second option is to enable the current governor of Ninevah, Nofal Aqub (or his replacement if he is dismissed), and the provincial council to govern in Mosul until the security situation allows for provincial elections, which are due sometime in 2017. This is the easier legal path, as it does not require any passage of complex legislation or significant political concessions. However, Aqub and the provincial council are widely seen by locals as derelict and corrupt and do not have strong bases of support within Mosul. They were elected in a 2013 protest vote against the previous government and better represent the interests of Ninevah’s rural areas than those of the capital city. Without strong representation from the city of Mosul, a provincial government will fail to gain the confidence needed to establish security and reintegrate public services into the Iraqi government.
The third option is for the Iraqi parliament to declare emergency law and authorize the appointment of a provisional local military governor who, with the backing of local and federal security forces, would oversee both political and security affairs. The appeal of this approach is it would alleviate the challenges resulting from too many disparate stakeholders involved in governing Mosul, which will need unity of command to coordinate operations and give orders. An apolitical military governor is the most efficient and viable way to establish the rule of law, deliver needed humanitarian assistance, and execute reconstruction projects. It is also the most viable way for the central government to maintain a heavy security footprint in the province.
To assist a provisional military governor, a Mosul Council of Elders comprised of respected former military officers, tribal leaders, and clerics would need to work closely with the current provincial council to settle local disputes, distribute aid, and facilitate reconstruction. With the support and cooperation of a council of elders, the military governor could more effectively implement the logistics required to re-establish federally-funded public services and municipality functions. Councils of elders have been used in the past and are in harmony with Iraqi culture. A council of elders working alongside a military governor would be less susceptible to political biases than a politically-led government. A partisan atmosphere post-ISIS would poison reconstruction and reconciliation efforts.
Lessons from the Anbar Awakening (sahwa) can shed light into the stabilizing role social leaders can play. In 2006 and 2007, security was established in Ramadi, Anbar’s capital, after the defeat of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), largely due to the initiative, drive, and support of local stakeholders coupled with the heavy presence of U.S. and Iraqi forces. There were sharp political differences between the provincial council headed by the Iraqi Islamic Party, which was largely in exile during the fighting against AQI in 2006-2007, and the local stake holders, who endured AQI’s heavy-handed hardships and the fighting. However, the social leaders played a vital stabilizing role to resolve differences, support law enforcement, act as intermediaries for the reintegration of former fighters, and help rebuild the province.
Leaders within the Anbar Awakening movement established the Anbar Salvation Council as a temporary, emergency provincial government to work with U.S. and Iraqi forces until new provincial elections could be held. Leaders of the Anbar Salvation Council were more social representatives than political ones. U.S. forces helped convince the central and local government to include nine members of the Anbar Salvation Council on the Anbar Provincial Council. U.S. and Iraqi governments recognized the social influence of the Anbar Salvation Council and the Anbar Awakening as an important part of governance and security, and it paid off. The Anbar Salvation Council was a temporary solution to help parts of Anbar transition from areas governed by terrorists and insurgents to provincial and central government control.
While Ninevah Province does not have the same level of demographic homogeneity as Anbar, nor does the Mosul operation have the number of U.S. ground forces to act as a neutral stabilizing force, the same need for nonpartisan social leaders and a neutral military command applies. Ninevah’s thousands of displaced people will not return once ISIS is defeated militarily in Mosul. As happened in Anbar from 2008 to 2011, ISIS will go underground and continue sporadic attacks. If federal and local leaders fail to create suitable conditions for displaced persons to return to Ninevah, there will be consequences. Due to the province’s ethnic and religious diversity, land disputes and looting will certainly increase over the property abandoned by displaced families. Ninevah’s displaced civilians will only have the confidence to return to their homes if strong security is in place.
Currently there are grassroots initiatives in Mosul promoting the need for unity. It would be wise for the Iraqi government and international partners to build on these grassroots initiatives to form a Mosul Council of Elders and nominate a provisional military governor. Critics argue the Iraqi parliament will not agree to grant the Prime Minister authority for emergency law. However, offering the Iraqi parliament a more viable option for an effective and sustainable security presence in Mosul is the best chance to prompt compromise.
The views expressed in this paper are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of their employers.