This is a tough pill to swallow.

Since 2003 we’ve seen the troubled city of Mosul in northern Iraq change hands numerous times.  From Saddam, to the coalition, to the government of Iraq (GOI), to ISIS, and now the city appears to be back under the nominal control of GOI, at least on paper.  Many Iraqi soldiers and policemen fought long and hard for Mosul, discounting the cowards who dropped their weapons and abandoned the city to a few hundred ISIS fighters of course.  Likewise, many Americans fought for the city as well.  In 2005 and again in 2009, I was one of them.  As a Ranger, my platoon participated in High Value Target direct action raids across the city, keeping up a relentless pace that saw us clearing multiple targets during a single period of darkness on a regular basis.  As a Special Forces soldier, my ODA launched operations into Mosul with an Iraqi SWAT team.  Many other American SOF and conventional soldiers have similar experiences and stories about their time there.

When we watched Mosul initially fall to ISIS, it came as a shock to myself and many other veterans.  Sure, in the back of our minds we all knew that the Iraqi government was weak and corrupt, but somehow we were still taken aback to see all of our hard work amount to nothing as a literal terrorist army conquered the city with barely a shot fired.  According to one SOFREP source on the ground, the US government is desperate to make the re-capture of Mosul look like a purely Iraqi initiative but the sad reality is that the Iraqi forces would be nearly useless without American supporting, coaxing, and perhaps even coercion in some cases.

The press is already floating stories about ISIS 2.0.  On SOFREP we’ve been talking about the end game since the very beginning.  What comes after ISIS?  So we defeat yet another group of terrorists?  In 2005 me and my teammates fought Al Qaeda in Iraq.  In 2009 we fought the Islamic State of Iraq.  In 2017, our Special Operations soldiers have fought ISIS in Mosul.  Without strong institutions of government moving in and building an Iraqi state that local people trust, then what is it all for?  All the Iraqi security forces have to look forward to in Mosul is an insurgency and guerrilla war.  ISIS has displayed an uncanny ability to switch from conventional (attrition based) tactics to unconventional (asymmetrical) based tactics on the fly.  Weakened and shattered, they will turn to the tactics of terror in Mosul the way AQI and ISI did before them.

From there it is just a matter of time before the next group pops up.  The People’s Islamic State of free Iraq, the Al Qaeda trans-Arabian Caliphate, or whatever other flavor of the day becomes the go-to Islamist GQ sexy movement to join.  So what was it for?  How many more times is Mosul going to change hands in our lifetimes?  Five?  Ten?  Whatever was the state of Iraq in 2003 and the state of Syria in 2012, both are now gone.  Whatever comes next will be profoundly different despite the overly optimistic assessments of GOI and the Assad regime.

Putting these shattered nations back together is the real challenge, not yet another counter-terrorism campaign.

Featured image courtesy of DVIDS