Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi recently visited Mosul and declared victory in the battle to drive the Islamic State (IS) from his country’s second-largest city. This, and the impending victory of American-based forces in Raqqa, the Syrian headquarters of IS, is good news. But we need to reflect on what happens next: to remember the tremendous cost of victory, and to remind ourselves of the ensuing costs required to ensure a sustained victory.
Next steps must not only include eradicating the remnants of IS, wherever this may be; rather, to rebuild Mosul and illustrate a positive example of how the global community can provide hope after catastrophe.
I lived in Mosul, as the head of the first Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Iraq, in 2006. At this time, I led the American government’s efforts to provide U.S. government assistance to that part of Iraq. Mosul was still a wonderful city then, full of grand architecture, rich in traditions.
Nineveh, the city first built at this site, figures prominently in Old Testament texts; Alexander the Great fought Darius III in a world-changing battle nearby; Saladin besieged the city. Mosul was famous, even in ancient times, for its diverse population―the result of migrations, invasions, and trade between east and west. Even during my service there, the city and its surroundings were a mix of many people and cultures: Arabs and Kurds, Yazidis and Assyrians, and countless others. Indeed, the Nineveh Plains to the east of the city are still home to many adherents of various Christian churches, though today many of those Christians are unfortunately living the desperate lives of the displaced. Jonah’s Tomb, which served both as a Muslim mosque and a Christian church, and the famous leaning minaret of the Great Mosque of al-Nuri, were just two of the striking examples of the historical skyline of Mosul.
This was no outpost in the desert; it was the crossroads of history for millennia. Mosul was even reputed to be the actual location of the Hanging Gardens, one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
When IS took over Mosul in early 2014, its soldiers detonated Jonah’s Tomb, and just last month, IS destroyed the Great Mosque. Of Mosul’s two million inhabitants before 2014, half are thought to have been displaced; hundreds of thousands live in refugee camps to the west of the city, where temperatures reach 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the Mesopotamian summer. Mosul’s University, once an exemplary institution of applied sciences, is shuttered, and Mosul’s professional classes―sophisticated and well-bred, teachers, business owners and engineers―have fled. In most neighborhoods west of the Tigris river including Old Mosul, where IS made its last stand among the most ancient monuments of the city, there is little housing left―next to nothing to which the displaced people might possibly return.
Read the Book of Nahum, and weep for Nineveh; read the newspapers today, and weep for Mosul.
We face a grave danger and critical turning point. Military leaders will focus on the remnants of IS and next steps in the war on terror. However, having won a victory on the battlefield, will we lose sight of Mosul, of its people and its significance? Will our leaders turn their eyes elsewhere, to the places where terrorism might next emerge, without remembering to reflect on Mosul? Both Iraqi and global leaders must not forget the lesson and symbol of Mosul: we must remind them that to leave this city in ruins will create a vacuum; without government and social services, we are inviting the prospect of anarchy, continued and pressing human tragedies, as well as long-term crises in the region.
If there is an alternative to the terror unleashed by IS, it must include a positive example of how world nations can work together in the aftermath of the struggle against terrorism and extremism. We need not only to unite to fight zealots but also to create a vision of a better future for those who have suffered the worst under IS.
So, let us insist that discussions in Iraq and those involving America, Russia, Turkey, Iran, the wealthier Gulf States and any others involved in this conflict, maintain a broad and purposeful agenda: to not just defeat the threat of IS, but to find ways to come together and create reasonable prospects for the rebirth of this historic city and bring lasting stability.
Just as Nineveh fell in antiquity and yet returned as a bustling, beautiful, diverse and energetic city, we need to ensure our diplomacy makes every effort to build on the ashes of today’s Mosul. Despite the prevailing pessimism and bleak spirit of much of international politics these days, there is an urgent need for us to make sacrifices on behalf of those who have suffered. This is not only a matter of the heart, but one of the mind: by rebuilding Mosul, and setting a precedent for bringing stability to the region, we will at least have a chance of fostering a positive future.
Cameron Munter is CEO and President of the EastWest Institute in New York. As an American diplomat, he served as U.S. ambassador to Pakistan and Serbia; and also served twice in Iraq, leading the first Provincial Reconstruction Team in Mosul and then overseeing U.S. civilian and military cooperation in planning the drawdown of U.S. troops.