The combined forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) swept through Mosul with lightning speed. This speed was accelerated by the flight of leadership. As the story unfolded I took a few minutes to tap into a jihad portal to view images on the ground. The citizens of Mosul noted government personnel fleeing the city in a convoy of vehicles. Military uniforms were lying in the dirt at the military bases in both Mosul and Tikrit. I guess soldiers fled in their underwear. Samarra was under attack. Within mere hours, the ISIS had secured a perimetre around six neighbourhoods. They had their eye on a prize: the Askari shrine. Kirkuk, a continual powder keg of sectarian political riff-raff, also experienced the upheaval of urban warfare.
The blitzkrieg worked. It was a spectacular display, which unfolded minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour. Herein lies the truth. When an ordinary soldier suffers an incontinence episode in the heat of battle, that is fine. Men can wet their britches and still be heroes. Soiled pants, sweat and cursing may prevail but real soldiers do not abandon their weapons and run. And when command staff has an incontinence episode and abandon their posts, all is lost. That loss in Mosul included the release of several hundred men from prison. Include them in the swelling ranks of the ISIS.
One thousand three hundred men accomplished a lightning fast strike against Mosul. Five hundred thousand citizens took flight. Citizens fall in line with the posture of their government. If I see soldiers on my lawn directing a line of fire at the enemy, team Swofford will provide the flank. This is Texas. We are as well armed as the average Somali warlord. However, if I see soldiers shedding their uniforms on my lawn, it is time for the Swofford family to drive, bike, skateboard or flee on foot. Good leadership inspires courage. Leaders who flee their constituents inspire a different type of reaction. It is called wild panic.
Iraq’s central governance is crumbling. When this dynamic occurs in the Middle East, governance reverts to the understood norm. Local mosques function as both command central and recruitment depot. One citizen reporter on the ground reported that the mosque network was being used to appeal to “citizen rebels”. Think of Iran as the modern prototype for a central and local command link. The use of mosques to facilitate the organisation and, if needed, operational staging of the Basij moves with a workable plan. This is done under the command of a central governing organ but in conflict zones, where central oversight disappears, political decisions and military operations return to a strong dependence on the writ of the scholar-in-residence to send up the battle cry. For God and country! The imam is now the town crier.
But back to Mosul. Five hundred thousand individuals fled. Welcome to the latest humanitarian crisis. When numbers are thrown about regarding a sudden diaspora uprooted due to the heat of battle, it can be easy to experience emotional detachment. However, each number represents a heartbeat. That person is important to me. So I dawdled a bit over at the CIA World Factbook. In Iraq, the demographic for ages zero to 14 is 36.7 percent of the population. The birth rate is 26.85 per 1,000. Plugging the numbers into the 0.5 million who fled Mosul, we now see heartbeat. Now, the faces of children emerge from the fog of war. Do the math. Consider the children on the run. Consider the mothers with babies that need to be carried along. Imagine the food and water requirements.
The insurgency is calling this latest push toward chaos ‘Breaking Borders: Sykes-Picot’. The rebel’s mast is under the banner of ‘one front, one command’. However, in Najaf, an elderly senior statesman has had enough. His eminence, the Grand Ayatollah al-Sayyed ‘Ali al-Husyani al-Sistani, has been threatened with assassination. The configuration of his security detail and layers of protection have been ramped up. I am aware of the changes due to an inquiry made last month regarding his health. I was shocked to even consider the ramifications for Iraqi citizens should this catastrophe transpire. There is no greater fury than religious fury.
The problem that confronts the senior jurist is broad in scope. Shias who look to him for guidance are on the run. One pivotal role of leadership is to provide direction during times of crisis. Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani has given a call to arms. The general speaks. Tribes will rise up. There will be blood.
Will the bloodshed be greater if the grand ayatollah is assassinated or will it be worse with this call to arms? When central governance is crumbling and a military is in retreat, is there a legitimate place for the approach of the west towards what we consider a non-traditional chain of command? I believe so. Many years ago I was told that one of the mistakes made by our command staff entering Iraq was a total ignorance of the grand ayatollah’s role in community life. Tradition holds that the grand ayatollahs rarely raise their heads above the parapets in Najaf and Qom. However, there is also a tradition of using the rod of authority to issue a call to arms during times of population upheaval. The power wielded cannot be discounted. The Shia tribes are now on the move. An order has been given. All who give their allegiance are lining up by the thousands to spill their blood. It is no longer just about them. It is about chain of command.
Several weeks ago I viewed a propaganda video of 62 minutes length. It included a scene with the beheading of a citizen. The still images of the beheading were recently sent out as a Tweet and mainstream media picked up the story. This is how the ISIS is operating in Iraq. Daily. There will be a response. Wretched judgment, raise thy hand.
The writer is a freelance journalist and author of the novel Arsenal. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org