Diplomats, donors, and investors gathered last week in Kuwait for a conference dedicated to rebuilding Iraq. As the country emerges from the destructive war against ISIS, Iraqi authorities will need over $88 billion for reconstruction efforts.

Some of the worst damage is in Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, which fell to ISIS in the summer of 2014. The battle to reclaim Mosul was the largest urban battle since World War II, engaging over 100,000 Iraqi security forces and allied militias with massive air support from the US-led coalition. The city was liberated in July 2017, but victory came at a tremendous price.

Although the civilian death toll remains contested, a recent Associated Press report suggests that between 9,000 and 11,000 civilians were killed in the nine-month battle for the city—nearly ten times higher than previously thought. Entire neighborhoods were razed to the ground, and the UN estimates that at least 40,000 homes will need to be repaired or rebuilt.

Discussions in Kuwait last week were focused on funding the astronomical cost of rebuilding Mosul and other Iraqi cities that were destroyed by the US-supported Iraqi forces sent to free them from ISIS. But global trends of rapid urban growth in developing countries in politically volatile regions, coupled with the evolution of armed conflict toward asymmetric warfare in urban areas, highlight the urgent need for a broader conversation about our global preparedness for urban conflict.

According to a recent OECD report on state fragility, global political violence is not only on the rise, but it is also increasingly more urban than rural. Indeed, a growing proportion of the world’s most violent conflicts are now being fought in cities like Aleppo,  Marawi, Gaza, Mogadishu, Donetsk, and Sana’a, where conventional state forces are pitted against armed groups that exploit the urban terrain to make up for their relative weakness. And whether it is ISIS-sponsored and inspired terrorism attacks in Barcelona, Paris, Istanbul and other major European cities, or groups like al-Shabab and Boko Haram targeting cities in Kenya and Nigeria, armed groups, insurgents, and terrorists are managing political violence unseen in the past.

How can the United States and its allies and partners meet the challenge of rising urban violence and the resurgence of warfare in cities?

The first step is admitting that you have a problem, as the saying goes. And despite their aversion to urban warfare, leading voices within the US defense community now acknowledge that future wars will likely be fought in densely populated cities, and that the US military will probably be involved in some capacity in any number of these conflicts. Unfortunately, thus far, acknowledging the urban nature of conflict has not led to major changes in terms of doctrine, equipment, or force structure.

The US military has jungle, mountain, and arctic warfare schools, but not urban ones. It has mock villages and sites to practice attacking buildings, but there is no school to study or prepare for combat in large cities. A premier institute dedicated to the study of dense urban environments could provide the missing component—a space to examine the future of urban combat, challenge current methods, create a cadre of urban experts, and maintain a group of researchers committed to the comprehensive study of urban conflict.

Preparing for more urban warfare also calls for greater coordination between state militaries and humanitarian agencies. This is a critical concern because urban military operations result in more civilian deaths that any other type of military action. Nowhere has this been more apparent than in the Middle East, where fighting in cities and towns across Iraq, Syria, and Yemen is creating what the International Committee of the Red Cross has described as a “new scale of urban suffering . . . where no one and nothing is spared by the violence.”

Many states, for instance, support ICRC and UN efforts to curtail the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in urban areas because of the risks they pose to civilians. But international treaties designed to protect civilians in times of war can also have unintended consequences when it comes to fighting in cities. The international treaty banning wartime use of chemical weapons, for example, prohibits militaries from using tear gas, which is a nonlethal and relatively less destructive crowd-control technique often utilized by domestic police forces. Ethics and military effectiveness are not mutually exclusive. But these tensions illustrate the pressing need for a more holistic international law approach to regulating military operations in cities; one that is attuned to the unique challenges of urban warfare.

The military victory in Mosul provides an exclamation point for the increasingly apparent need to revise how military forces fight in cities. From the perspective of the United States, a realistic approach to military training in large urban areas is essential. But a serious international effort to prepare for the future of conflict more broadly is desperately needed. Without such an effort, we should expect more conferences on rebuilding cities.


Maj. John Spencer is the deputy director of the Modern War Institute at the United States Military Academy in West Point, NY. A former Ranger Instructor, he has held the ranks of private to sergeant first class and lieutenant to major while serving in ranger, airborne, light, and mechanized infantry units during his 24 years as an infantryman. He looks forward to connecting via Twitter @SpencerGuard.
Dr. Margarita Konaev is post-doctoral fellow at the Center for Strategic Studies in The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, where her research focuses on international security, armed conflict, non-state actors, and urban warfare.  Previously, she was a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perry World House, and a pre-doctoral fellow at the Notre Dame International Security Center. She looks forward to connecting via Twitter @RitaKonaev.


The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the US government.


Image credit: European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations, European Commission