The liberation of Mosul may be at hand. Elements of the Iraqi Army move slowly on Mosul from the south, Kurdish peshmerga cross the Ninewa Plains and approach Mosul from the east. And to the west, there are reports of Shia militia units moving on Tal Afar, a strategic town between Mosul and the Syrian border. No one claims Mosul's fall is imminent, but with the help of American air strikes and advisors, the advance is steady.
Let's not assume the fighting will be easy. But another task will be difficult as well: the task of governance once the battle is won.
This will be a key test in the fight against ISIS: can the government of Iraq, in concert with its domestic partners from the Iraqi Kurdistan (the KRG), as well as the cooperation of international supporters, show itself capable of bringing peace, prosperity, and rule of law to this city of nearly two million when the fighting stops?
Many speculate about a "post-Wesphalian moment" in the Middle East: they speculate that the states whose borders were drawn in the aftermath of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 must somehow demonstrate that they can serve the needs of the population if these states are to survive. This concern may be overblown, but in the long run, ISIS will be defeated only when the alternative presented by established authorities is attractive, credible, and realistic.
The government of Iraq will need to provide a framework for some autonomy to this mainly-Sunni city. It will have to demonstrate its ability to protect those minorities who survive (many fewer than before ISIS arrived two years ago), such as Christians and Yazidis; it will have to work with the Kurdish inhabitants and their protectors from the KRG. In Tal Afar, to the west, it will need to address the needs of the largely Turkmen population, and cooperate their friends across the border in Turkey. It will need to restore institutions that were anchors of prosperity in Mosul in the past, such as its university. And it will need to create prospects for long-term economic viability throughout the province of Ninewa if the immediate project of pacification is successful.
So while many look at the battle for Mosul in the larger framework on the war against ISIS — that is, mainly as a military target that's a necessary prerequisite for ultimate victory that would drive a vulnerable foe from the regional — what happens after the fighting stops is perhaps even more important. During my own time supervising U.S. assistance in Ninewa in 2006, our traditional efforts at job creation, infrastructure development, strengthening of governing and juridical institutions as well as security forces were simply not adequate. Post-hostilities Mosul will need much more than we were able to muster at that time. Let's hope that the Iraqi leadership is marshaling its reconstruction forces and planning the next, post-hostilities actions.
It will take generosity, patience, and cooperation from Baghdad's leadership, and much of the same from those in Irbil and even Ankara, for a start. But if those who win the battle of Mosul are unable to demonstrate that they can govern effectively, it will be an enormous setback for all who fight against ISIS and what it stands for. Conversely, if Iraqi authorities succeed in liberated Mosul, it can serve as a model, evidence that stability is still possible in that troubled region.