Fighters from the Hashd al-Shaabi, backing the Iraqi forces, pose with the Iraqi flag on Tal Afar's Ottoman-era historic citadel after troops took control of the area during an operation to retake the city from ISIS on August 27, 2017. Photo: AFP/Ahmad al-Rubaye
The Iraqi victory over Islamic State (ISIS) in the Turkmen town of Tal Afar comes just days before the 12th anniversary of a previous battle in that town during the Iraq War, which the Americans then hailed as a turning point in its then battle against ISIS's predecessor Al-Qaeda in Iraq.
The composition of forces in both battles is noteworthy. In 2005 it was primarily a combined American-Iraqi Army operation with comparable numbers of participating troops and a tiny number of casualties. The present operation consisted of the Iraqi Army and Shiite Hashd al-Shaabi paramilitaries (who were excluded from the recently concluded Mosul operation), with support from the Americans (see the military base they established in nearby Zummar for the operation) and even Belgian special forces.
Today's operation, despite its swift execution, also hasn't received the kind of fanfare from Washington that the 2005 operation did. At that time the George W. Bush administration formulated the “clear, hold and build” strategy. A strategy administration officials believed could end the violence in Iraq and lead to the building of a stable state. The defeat of Al-Qaeda in Tal Afar, they argued, was proof that this strategy could work.
Shortly after the successful September 2005 Tal Afar battle Bush's Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice outlined this strategy, in a congressional testimony, when she insisted that: “Our political-military strategy has to be clear, hold, and build: to clear areas from insurgent control, to hold them securely, and to build durable, national Iraqi institutions.”
Interestingly, the US Army commander of troops in Tal Afar at the time was H.R. McMaster, who is now President Donald Trump's national security advisor. He oversaw a sustained troop presence in Tal Afar which maintained security there after Al-Qaeda was forced out.
“What is amazing is how once you are able to lift the pall of fear off these people, how life just flows back into these cities,” McMaster observed at the time before cautiously adding, “But what's important is to keep security there.”
Today in Tal Afar, 12 years later, ISIS has been successfully cleared from the city. Who will hold the city is another question and how much rebuilding will be needed and who will do it is also not presently clear.
Joel Wing, an Iraq analyst who runs the Musings on Iraq blog, told Rudaw English that “pro-Iran Hashd forces will want to run Tal Afar.”
“They want to protect the Shiite Turkmen and know how important the town was to ISIS,” he elaborated, pointing out that Tal Afar was home “to some prominent ISIS personalities, as well as a way station for foreign fighters coming from Syria.”
“That might also mean displacing Sunnis and incorporating it into the west Nineveh security zone the Hashd are creating,” he explained. “That'll probably be effective in the short term, but long term who knows.”
Michael Knights, an Iraq analyst and the Lafer Fellow at the Washington Institute, told Rudaw English early this month that Hashd “have always wanted to take control” of Tal Afar and predicted that “they will end up in charge of the area.”
Regarding reconstruction Wing points out that pictures coming out of Tal Afar shows a town that “doesn't look that damaged from the fighting.”
“From what Baghdad has done so far places like Tal Afar will be last on the list for rebuilding. There are large parts of Fallujah and even Ramadi that still need rebuilding. Towns like Tal Afar will be left to the locals to put back together.”
Compare the likely outcome of a Hashd-controlled Tal Afar, which locals will have to rebuild, to the post-battle situation in 2005 as summarized in a fact sheet released by the White House's Office of the Press Secretary which stated that: “Terrorists who once exercised brutal control over every aspect of the city have been killed, captured, driven out, or put on the run. Children are going to school, electricity and water service are restored throughout the city, and the police force better reflects the ethnic and religious diversity of the communities they patrol.”
Unlike Mosul Tal Afar is ethnically Turkmen but also has a mixed population of Sunnis and Shiites. Mosul, while it has long had minority populations, was always predominantly Sunni Arab.
If Iranian-backed Shiite Hashd elements do end up in control of Tal Afar in the near future then it may become a conduit for Iranian-backed Iraqi paramilitaries going to fight in Syria. Also, having such a force running Tal Afar could well spark internal sectarian tensions in the area leading to more instability and violence.
Consequently, instead of being a glowing example of post-ISIS stabilization efforts in Nineveh, as it was for the Americans following Al-Qaeda's aforementioned defeat there 12 years ago, Tal Afar may well become a flashpoint for more sectarian violence yet again in the not-too-distant future.