The Fallujah Victory Is Being Oversold
Robert Souza earned a Master’s degree in international relations with a concentration on the Middle East from Suffolk University and a Bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. He is also a Fellowship Editor at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy in Washington, D.C. The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the views of Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.
The world has watched with horror as the so-called Islamic State, commonly referred to as ISIS, has metastasized from a ragtag al-Qaeda offshoot into a globally lethal force. So when Iraq’s U.S.-supported army recently liberated the city of Fallujah from ISIS control, it was widely considered a tremendous victory. "I call on all Iraqis wherever they are to get out and celebrate," said Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi as he visited Fallujah to raise his country’s national flag.
Abadi’s words epitomize the armor-plated optimism pervading both his government and much of the U.S. foreign policy establishment. But while recapturing Fallujah from the secure grip of ISIS produces ample reason for optimism, there are numerous reasons for which I feel moderately apprehensive about this ubiquitous jubilance. If history is any guide, it is far too early for celebration.
As scholar of Islamic history and author Brian Glyn Williams once told me as we chatted in his untidy UMass Dartmouth office reminiscent of the proverbial creative thinker: “People have short memories when it comes to the  Iraq invasion.” Indeed, it was not long ago when U.S. and Iraqi forces coerced al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) militants out of Fallujah, but that did not stop ISIS from seizing the embattled city just a few years later. Pardon my pessimism, but this just feels like déjà vu.
I am also reminded of a pertinent excerpt from senior fellow at the Brookings Institution Shadi Hamid’s new book, Islamic Exceptionalism: “The illusion that Islamists – or even Islamism – can be eliminated by brute force is a long-standing one. It’s also a fool’s errand.” While destroying an organization with hard power is feasible, killing an ideology deeply rooted in society is an entirely different matter. ISIS’s ability to rise from the ashes of AQI and seize Fallujah in 2014 lends considerable vindication to this theory.
Understanding how and why Fallujah has long been a fertile environment for the proliferation of extreme interpretations of Sunni Islam and anti-American sentiment is of profound importance.
The Fallujah skyline bristles with Saudi-funded minarets, predisposing its residents to puritanical Wahhabi interpretations of Sunni Islam commonly associated with Saudi Arabia. In the wake of the 2003 U.S. invasion, the chaotic atmosphere proved conducive to the amplification of an actionable strain of violent Wahhabism. Likewise, following the 2003 “debaathification” process, a considerable number of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s well-paid military personnel in Fallujah found themselves disenfranchised and unemployed. Thus, many of these soldiers and security officers became vexed and sought revenge on those they deemed responsible for their economic woes.
While battlefield success against a genocidal terrorist army is unequivocally good, a subsequent focus on dismantling the widespread appeal of violent dissidence and anti-Americanism is imperative. The current overemphasis the United States and its Iraqi counterparts place on hard power exemplifies their strategic myopia. “Great leaders,” political scientist Joseph Nye eloquently notes, “know how to combine [hard and soft power] to exercise ‘smart power,’ through which they generate trust and mobilize people around forward-looking agendas.” Unfortunately, the U.S.-led coalition continuously fails to find such a balance.
Riding the wave of euphoria after the liberation of Fallujah, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced the deployment of nearly 600 more American troops to Iraq,bringing the total upwards of 4,600, to help prepare Iraqi forces liberate the city of Mosul. Like Fallujah, Mosul is predominantly Sunni, suffered from extensive chaos and lawlessness after the 2003 U.S. invasion, and has been enveloped in barbaric atavism since the advent of ISIS in 2014. Mosul also happens to be the last ISIS stronghold in the entire country. Unsurprisingly, most attention and media focus has been on this ostensible “final battle” for Iraq, illuminating the wrongheaded propensity to focus on armed conflict and dismiss the day after as trivial. A military component is required, sure, but to open up the environment for the real “final battle” for Iraq: The social, economic, and political battle against the extremist ideology that resonates with disenfranchised Sunnis.
After U.S.-backed Iraqi forces employ hard power to push ISIS out of Sunni-majority areas such as Fallujah and Mosul, they must then prioritize the use of soft power in order to win the trust of the Sunni population. If the Sunnis lack an adequate alternative to ISIS, it is just a matter of time until ISIS restores its vigor or is supplanted by another Sunni militancy – rendering these military victories useless.
The Abadi government now has an opportunity to do right where former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki did wrong after effectively defeating AQI, by addressing the underlying social, economic, and political causes of Sunni extremism in his country. Now is the time for Abadi to learn from the past and prove that Iraq is the functioning democracy it purports to be.
A pluralist democracy, one that is sufficiently responsive to its diverse electorate, is the best path to a sustainable solution. Iraq is approximately 60% Shia, and that, by nature, plays in their favor in a democratic society. A Shia majority, however, is far from an insurmountable issue. All democracies are malleable; they are designed to reflect the environment in which they exist. While the forces of democratic pluralism will constantly provoke competition between different sects, liberalism and illiberalism, religion and secularism, and various different ideologies, giving everyone a fair shot and sense of importance increases the likelihood of political compromise and nonviolence. It probably would not look like democracy in the United States, but it would be theirs. It sounds so wonderful and simple, but this will be no easy task in Iraq.
Even if Abadi does prioritize pluralism and reconciliation with the country’s minority populations, he faces substantial political barriers: Government bankruptcy looms due to protracted warfare and a sharp decline in oil revenues; Abadi is himself enmeshed in a Shia power struggle for government control; Shia hard-liners still serve as a severe impediment to non-Shia political involvement; and there is no saying they would even trust him if he did.
Not only that, but ISIS seems aware of the impending collapse of its so-called Caliphate, and its recent tactical shifts complicate matters. As these hard-charging jihadists strive to fulfill what they believe is a divine edict, they must maintain a narrative of victory in order to attract recruits. Consequently, ISIS has broadened its scope of operations and shifted much of its focus to orchestrating and inspiring rudimentary terrorist attacks on vulnerable targets. With ISIS-related attacks terrorizing citizens across vast geographical domains, it is possible ISIS could reaffirm its grandiose assertions through a robust propaganda campaign, with or without the Caliphate.
Regardless, the ideas behind ISIS’s brutality will outlive the Caliphate, and the Iraqi government must divest from disastrous sectarian policies in order to build an infrastructure capable of combatting these ideas – not for just months or years, but for generations. Furthermore, a strategy focused on “smart power” must be implemented in order to coalesce Iraq’s minority populations around an Iraqi identity and extend the rule of law to newly liberated areas.
So, Prime Minister Abadi has every right to be happy right now after his security force’s victory in Fallujah, but we have seen this before. Perhaps he should hold off on the celebration and get to work.