Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, has long been hard for the central government to control because of its combustible mix of Arabs and Kurds. The first time I visited Mosul was in August 2003 when a tenuous calm was maintained by the 101st Airborne Division. Its commander, a then-obscure two-star general named David Petraeus, had on his own initiative opened the Syrian border to trade, struck deals with Syria and Turkey to provide badly needed electricity, restored telephone service, and held elections to elect local leaders. Along the way he also managed to kill Saddam Hussein's poisonous offspring Uday and Qusay.
This kept militants at bay, but they returned with a vengeance after the 101st pulled out in 2004, to be replaced by a smaller American unit whose officers were less attuned to the demands of civic action. Mosul became a hotbed of Saddamist and Islamist militants, as I saw for myself in February 2008 when, during another visit, the U.S. Army convoy in which I was riding was hit by a "complex ambush": The Humvee in front of mine hit a bomb concealed in a big puddle, and insurgents opened machine gun fire from the left. Luckily no one in our unit was hurt, but a bystander had his arm sliced off by a flying piece of the Humvee's engine.
Mosul was the last major city to be pacified by the successful "surge." It took until at least 2010 before it was secure. But now that achievement has been undone. Black-clad fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), as Al Qaeda in Iraq has rebranded itself, stormed into Mosul last week and seized control. Dispirited Iraqi soldiers ran away rather than fight. Many were so eager to escape that their discarded uniforms littered the streets. ISIS freed more than 2,000 of its fighters from prisons and seized copious stocks of money, ammunition, and weapons—many of the latter provided by the United States to Iraqi forces.