Thursday, October 24, 2019

Review They Will Have to Die Now: Mosul and the Fall of the Caliphate

Review Verini, James, They Will Have to Die Now: Mosul and the Fall of the Caliphate, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2019

Seizing Mosul was what marked the rise of the Islamic State in the summer of 2014. It had been rebuilding for years, but taking a major city in Iraq was a shock to the world. The loss of the city to the Iraqi forces backed up by the international coalition three years later, was its biggest defeat. It was inevitable that this would eventually be put into a book, and James Verini a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine and National Geographic was the first to do so in They Will Have to Die Now: Mosul and the Fall of the Caliphate. The author does a good job weaving together his time with the Iraqi forces, speaking to displaced families from Mosul, and plenty of history of Iraq, the Islamic State, and Mosul.

The heart of They Will Have to Die Now is Verini reflecting upon his time with Iraqis. That begins with being imbedded with the Counter Terror Services (CTS) as they entered Gogjali, the most eastern suburb of Mosul. He also met two brothers, Abu Omar and Abu Fahad, whose families were displaced from the city and were living in a camp, and he was with the Peshmerga when they kicked off the Mosul offensive by seizing the area north of the city. Verini had great admiration for the CTS soldiers he met who were the main forces who freed the city. He noted they didn’t follow military convention rarely wearing body armor or setting up a perimeter after the day’s fighting was over. Many of the officers he met, especially the CTS commander General Abdul Wahab al-Saadi were portrayed as brave and highly popular with both their men and the people of Mosul. There were other officers however, who Verini left nameless who were only seen in Mosul when there were press around. Abu Omar and Abu Fahad had interesting stories to tell as well. Both admitted they welcomed IS when it entered the city believing it brought order initially in comparison to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who they believed was a horrible leader who was deeply sectarian and persecuted Mosul. They also didn’t initially admit that some of their sons had joined the group during the occupation out of fear that they would be arrested by the authorities, which eventually happened. These sections highlight Verini’s style, which is largely a personal narrative. Major events are portrayed such as when the Iraqi forces took certain towns or parts of Mosul, but really, the author’s focus is upon the people he met during the battle.

There are references to the dark side of the war as well. Verini noted that many CTS units executed IS fighters they captured. All the soldiers had pictures and videos of IS members being executed and tortured. The Federal Police were brought in to help to take west Mosul, which was a much tougher fight. Many of those units had little training and were undisciplined. Vereini for example saw one unit fire unguided homemade rockets at an IS position, but the missiles flew all over the place indiscriminately. The killing of IS prisoners would lead to some controversy after Mosul was liberated as it got into the media. West Mosul was also reduced to rubble due to the fighting, and largely remains so to this day in part due to the stiff resistance by IS, but also because of the use of units from the Federal Police, and Coalition air strikes.

Within this story of war, Verini is also able to include plenty of history to the events. At the start for instance, he talks about how Ninewa has an ancient past dating back to the Assyrians, is included in the Old Testament, and saw the rise and fall of almost a dozen empires. In another section he goes into how the 101st Airborne Division under General David Petraeus did a good job governing Mosul after the 2003 invasion, but after that unit left the insurgency took root, which then leads to a review of how the Islamic State came about. In another part Verini goes through the creation of Iraq, and then in another the rise and fall of Saddam Hussein. These sections are all done well, and showed that Verini did his research and wasn’t going to just rely upon his reporting from the battle.

Overall They Will Have to Die Now is a good introduction to the battle for Mosul. It is not a detailed military history. It doesn’t have all the dates and events as the Iraqi forces fought their way across the city. Rather it is part stories of the people who took part and were affected by the war, and part background to Mosul, Iraq, and the insurgency. If one wants a very readable overview of the war against the Islamic State this would be a good starting point.

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