If the 21st century has taught us anything, it is that to fight a successful war an army needs a successful exit strategy. Bereft of one, while it may win the military battle, it will ultimately lose the strategic war.
Nowhere is this aphorism clearer than in the cases of the post-9/11 conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. In both cases, the US-led coalitions — especially in Iraq — won an easy initial victory against their adversaries. But the defeating of Saddam Hussein’s army proved to be merely the beginning, not the end, of the real war in Iraq.
This week, something almost unprecedented happened. Viewers could watch, via a live-stream on Facebook, as Iraqi-led coalition forces began their campaign to retake Mosul from the terror group ISIS. It was ISIS’ capture of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, that allowed its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, to declare the restoration of an Islamic caliphate across large swaths of Iraq and Syria in June 2014.
Live-streaming a military operation has obvious disadvantages, not least militarily. Why, for example, would you allow your enemy to see what you are doing as you prepare to storm its stronghold?
The answer lies at the heart of modern warfare. In the 20th century, wars were most usually fought among states. In the 21st century, the biggest challenge is asymmetrical warfare: Nations now fight against insurgent groups.
Just as Israel’s greatest threats no longer come from the Arab states that surround it but from terror groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah, and the greatest US troubles in Iraq came not from Hussein’s army but the insurgency that sprang up after its defeat, so Iraq’s greatest threat comes not from traditional enemy Iran (at least not militarily) but from ISIS, which took advantage of former Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s years of sectarian misrule to recruit persecuted Sunnis into its ranks.
The battle then becomes about not just the military defeat of ISIS but also winning the hearts and minds of the local population. It becomes not just a military war, but also a narrative war, in which the latter is arguably more important.
In Afghanistan, after the initial fighting, the US-led coalition sought not to defeat the Taliban but to convince the local population not to join them. In Iraq, the coalition had to convince the insurgents to lay down their arms and sign up to the “new Iraq.” In essence, both became political, not military campaigns. Only once the narrative battle was won could the forces leave. But it was never won: Hearts and minds were not sufficiently captured. Today, both countries remain mired in violence.
In Iraq, the government cannot allow any more Iraqis to join ISIS. This goal is just as important, if not more so, than defeating the group on the battlefield. But Iraqis mistrust their government, and the country, cleaved by sectarian division, remains fecund soil for ISIS recruitment.
So the coalition, which includes Kurds as well as US and UK airstrikes and special forces on the ground, needs not only to tell but also to show the Iraqi people the extent to which it is determined to stamp out ISIS. While those in the West were able to access the live-stream, the fact that no subtitles were provided as the soldiers barked in Arabic at one another shows the West is not its target audience — Iraqis and the Arab-speaking world are.
Defeating ISIS means, above all, winning the narrative war. And for this, new information technology from Twitter to the ability to stream events in real time on platforms such as Facebook is vital. Only once the narrative war against ISIS is won can the West be sure that the group won’t regenerate and spring up elsewhere in Iraq, and only then can the West — finally — extricate itself from its 21st-century Middle East quagmire.
David Patrikarakos is a contributing editor at The Daily Beast and author of a forthcoming book on social media and war. The opinions in this article belong to the author.