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An ISIS Loss In Mosul Doesn't Mean They'll Lose The War


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Iraqi forces and their allies continue their attempt to retake the city of Mosul from ISIS. Progress has been slow, but their advance is ongoing. We're joined now by Seth Jones. He's director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corporation. He also served as an advisor with the commanding general of U.S. special operations forces in Afghanistan. Mr. Jones, thanks so much for being with us.

SETH JONES: Thanks for having me on, Scott.

SIMON: You argue that ISIS might lose the battle, but still wind up closer toward winning the war.

JONES: Well, I think the issue here is to understand that groups like ISIS wax and wane over time. Just because they're weakening now and they're losing territory doesn't mean that this trend will continue. I think there are a range of factors that may increase their probability of coming back, and I think that's what I've argued.

SIMON: Give us some historical context, if you could. You argue that, historically, insurgencies have often succeeded when they keep what amounts to - forgive this cliche - a light footprint.

JONES: Right. So there are a couple of factors that if ISIS decides to learn - effectively learn - some of the lessons from successful insurgent groups, they'll do at least three things. One is that they will look for sanctuary - we've already seen them doing that in the Jazira areas along the Iraqi-Syrian border - where they'll refit, train and then wait for future operations. A second is a switch to a guerrilla campaign. That is, they're facing a much more powerful enemy right now - The Iraqi security forces, Shia militias, Sunni Arab forces, Kurdish Peshmerga backed by American and other special operations and air power.

It makes very little sense for them at this point to conduct conventional campaigns, to take these kinds of forces on the battlefield, which means the tried and traditional method is guerrilla war. It's ambushes and raids. It's no set piece battles. And so that's the second issue that we look for. Third is to try to take advantage, over time, of grievances. There are plenty of them, both on the Iraqi and Syrian side, none of which have been effectively dealt with at this point. So those three things - I think, if they focused on them, they might be able to regain some of that territory.

SIMON: Has the Iraqi government therefore made a strategic mistake by investing so much firepower and so much prestige in retaking Mosul?

JONES: No. The Iraqi government, I don't think, has made a mistake in focusing so much of an effort, but what becomes very important is less the issue of taking Mosul and more what happens afterwards. Which of the state and non-state actors seize the territory? How effective is the Iraqi government in getting water back running, electricity back running, the delivery of services? These will become very important issues because if we see Kurdish forces into Sunni areas controlling territory, we see Shia - the popular mobilization Shia forces - controlling territory in Mosul itself, if we see poor governance with the Iraqi politicians that come in and take over areas that have been vacated by ISIS - these are all variables that may increase animosity among the local population.

SIMON: What would you like to see the next president of the United States do?

JONES: I'd like the next U.S. president to focus, in part, on taking territory away, but, even more important, to understand that wars in places like Iraq and Syria are first political and second military. So if you're going to make a decision to try to take territory away from a group like ISIS, then you've got to deal with some of the grievances that are underlying the whole conflict because if you don't deal with those, you will be right back where we started in 2018 or 2017. That lesson should have been learned in 2011, and it wasn't.

SIMON: Seth Jones is director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corporation. Thanks so much for being with us.

JONES: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.