Journalist James Verini Discusses Battle Of Mosul And Fall Of Islamic State
KPBS Midday Edition Segments / October 8, 2019
A new book by journalist and author James Verini chronicles the long and complicated history of America's presence in Iraq.
Speaker 1: 00:00 A new book by journalist and author James Verini called, they will have to die now. Mozal and the fall of the caliphate Chronicles the battle of mazal and Iraq in the book. Verine looks at the long and complicated history of Western, especially American presence in Iraq and the middle East and how that involvement brought about the terrorist group known as ISIS, the group making headlines this week after president Donald Trump announced a withdrawal from Northern Syria. James Verini joins me now. James, welcome. Thanks so much for having me. I know you've not spent much time in Syria, but I would like to begin by asking you a question about that news of president Trump pulling troops from the Syria Turkey border against recommendations from top officials in the Pentagon and state department in general. What are the implications of this?
Speaker 2: 00:49 The implications for anyone who cares about the Kurds and the Kurdish cause, uh, are, are really worrying, um, Turkey and Airtel one, uh, consider, uh, the Kurdish, uh, the Kurdish group in, in Syria to be a terrorist group. And they've indicated their intention of, um, cracking down on it, even as a, even as the Kurds there have carved out a comparatively peaceful section of the country. So it's, um, potentially very worrying.
Speaker 1: 01:23 And I know you're in San Diego to talk about your new book, which focuses on Iraq and the battle for Mosul. The Pentagon calls the battle for mu for Mozel, the most intense urban battles since world war two. What did you learn or what surprised you about that experience of being there?
Speaker 2: 01:41 That's what was really so surprising about it was that it was such a large battle, uh, on the, on the order that we hadn't seen in decades. You know, the Islamic state as a is in Islamicists insurgency. Um, and ever since nine 11, uh, the world had expected that Wars would continue to be asymmetrical as, as, as they're called, things like Afghanistan in Iraq where we're fighting against insurgencies. And the conflict consists of IED attacks and small ambitious, but not major battles over the possession of a city. But that's precisely what Mozel was. So for someone like me, a conflict journalist who's only been covering conflict, um, in the, in the two thousand two thousand tens, it was very surprising to see something on this scale with tens of thousands of soldiers and, and thousands of tons of munitions and, um, and the battle took, uh, over nine months in Toto, um, and it was for the possession of what was the second or third largest city in Iraq. So this, the sheer scale of it, uh, and as you say, the intensity of the fighting was, was surprising.
Speaker 1: 02:57 You know, your title is they will have to die now. Mozal and the fall of the caliphate. Talk to me more about the fall of the caliphate. Does that look like on the ground?
Speaker 2: 03:06 So the Islamic state, um, as you know, originally formed not as a territory holding group, but as an a more traditional, uh, insurgency. It came out of Al Qaeda in Iraq. It was a jihadist insurgency. Somewhere along the lines as Al Qaeda in Iraq was, was, was morphing into the Islamic state in Iraq and then into ISIS. And finally into the califate, some more along the lines. Uh, its leaders decided that they were going to take very seriously the long offered promise, um, of, of recreating the caliphate or creating a new califit the, the Sunni insurgency groups, uh, working in the middle East and the environs had long talked about but never actually done it. Uh, ISIS, uh, actually did it. They actually managed to take enough territory to create Natras in Islamic state, but at califit and when Abu buck are all Baghdadi, the head, the ostensible head of ISIS entered Mosul in June of 2014 he gave his first address, the only public address, uh, that we have recorded at least a in among Western sources.
Speaker 2: 04:17 He gave the address, um, in July, early July of 2014 at the, at the big mosque, uh, in Mozal and pronounced the existence of a caliphate and himself. It's Kayla [inaudible]. This was the culmination of ISIS is power. And it was in many ways all downhill from there. What the Iraqi troops and international coalition were able to do by taking away ISIS is land in Iraq. Um, and then Syria was to dismantle this califit which, which takes away a lot of the appeal of the Islamic state to outsiders. There are many, many people who move to Iraq and Syria while the califate existed, not because they wanted to do violence or fight, but precisely because they wanted to live in a, what they consider to be or were told was a, a righteous state. Uh, a califate living under God's law. These omic Satan no longer has that to offer.
Speaker 2: 05:15 Now all they have to offer is, um, you know, the, the opportunity to do violence in whether it's Libya or Afghanistan or France or the Philippines, or soon enough. Kashmere it's also worth noting that, um, when, when Baghdadi announced the creation of the caliphate and him and proclaimed himself, it's Caleb, he lost the allegiance of many in the world of jihadism. Um, it was many people argued that he did not have the right to do this. Um, and that he was, you know, overstepping his, uh, his bounds essentially. Um, and he was, uh, he was maligned and ridiculed by other insurgents. Ironically,
Speaker 1: 06:04 the United States still has troops in Iraq though far less than at the height of the war. Now, especially in light of the recent attacks on Saudi oil facilities, attention has turned to Iran. What does the American experience in Iraq tell us about how we should be proceeding in dealing with Iran?
Speaker 2: 06:22 Well, um, it's the irony of course, or an irony of the American invasion of Iraq was precisely that it, uh, gave rise. It allowed Iran to rise politically and militarily and the region. Um, all of the, uh, all of the problems we've been having with Iran in the last 15 or so years. Not all of them, but many of them STEM from this fact. The fact that our invasion and occupation of Iraq allowed Iran to, uh, increase its prominence, uh, in Iraq of course, where it funded, um, the Shia insurgency, but also in Lebanon and in Syria and elsewhere. On the most basic level, I would hope that, uh, the administration and the U S government remember that, remember that it was the, the war or the attempted war in Iraq that allowed Iran to rise like this. Iran is still very prominent in Iraq, geopolitics and in the Iraqi military. Um, and that's not going to change anytime soon. Uh, it is a, it's a less obvious, um, outpost of theirs. Um, if you're looking at the landscape of the region, but they still, they still wield a great deal of power in Baghdad. The Iranians,
Speaker 1: 07:44 one aspect of your book deals with how new technology is changing the face of war. What does that mean for American military involvement in Iraq and the greater middle East?
Speaker 2: 07:55 To my mind, the more interesting technological aspect of, uh, the battle for Mosul in the war against ISIS was how it involved everyone in the war. Uh, so to speak via technology, meaning that everyone around the soldiers, of course the jihad is, uh, the civilians, journalists and everybody else. Everyone had smartphones and smartphone cameras. So everyone was able to, um, uh, photograph and film this war and disseminate their footage around the world. And as you'll recall, that's how, uh, many of us, or many people who were not in Iraq consumed this battle and this war was via amateur footage taken by people on the ground with their phones disseminated via social media. I would argue that, um, perhaps even more interesting and significant that then mil military technological changes are the technological changes that are allowing average people, uh, populaces to record and depict war.
Speaker 1: 08:58 Do you think it gives people and more honest perspective about what war is?
Speaker 2: 09:02 Well, that's a great question and I, I asked myself that a lot and if I might just plug something else. I have an essay in wired this week that, that poses that question. You know, I think if we're being optimistic, yes, perhaps this, um, amateur, if we want to use that word or just citizen, uh, recording of war depiction of war will allow people such as Americans who have, have never had to suffer through a war on our well, haven't had for a century and a half. Perhaps it will make us more cognizant of the horrors of war and the futility of war such that, um, we won't be so eager to Russian tours in the future. That would be, um, that would be a nice outcome.
Speaker 1: 09:44 And, you know, the war in Iraq has largely fallen out of the headlines, but you argue in the book that it's critical Americans not forget about our experience in Iraq. Uh, apart from avoiding getting into Wars in the future, why is it important for us to always remember America's involvement in that country?
Speaker 2: 10:00 When the United States invaded Iraq, it was almost as though the youngest or one of the youngest powers in the world was taking on the oldest power in the world, so to speak. Um, and, and you could sense at the time in 2003 and 2004 that as Americans, we were so anxious and fearful over what had happened in nine 11 that we felt the need, not just to lash out at another country, a country that, that produced none of the bombers involved in nine 11. But we, we, we felt the need to somehow lash out at history. It seemed to me at the time, it seems to me even more so now. We thought we, we, we fooled ourselves in the idea that the new world could once and for all a rid the, the world of, of, of the curse of war that we could finally purify the old world. As it was. Of course, we weren't able to do this. And, uh, the invasion only began more war. So, um, what I always like to tell people is, uh, pay much more attention to history. You'll see that nothing that's being done hasn't been done before. And, um, we have enough books and enough evidence, uh, that we can very easily anticipate the mistakes we're going to make if we don't pay attention enough attention to history.
Speaker 1: 11:21 I've been speaking with James Verini, author of the new book. They will have to die now. Mozal and the fall of the caliphate. James, thank you very much for joining us. Thank you Jane.