As one of my defence colleagues said pessimistically: "We could be back there in 10 years banging heads together again."
Mosul will be taken back from Islamic State within a month, according to optimistic Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. The interim period will present an enormous humanitarian challenge as hundreds of thousands of Mosul residents flee to already crowded refugee camps.
When Mosul falls, there will be many issues to address, including who will run it, who will rebuild it, who will populate it, and so on. There seems to have been little international focus on what comes next once Islamic State is forced out.
Local governance and humanitarian relief are not priorities for the United States-led military coalition.
The US is mainly preoccupied with defeating Islamic State militarily in Mosul and Raqqa. But urban defeat will not be the end of the organisation in Iraq and Syria, nor elsewhere. Islamic State will continue to conduct rural insurgency and encourage international terrorism, and wait for the opportunity to regenerate.
Before Mosul fell to Islamic State in June 2014, Mosul was run by corrupt Shi'ite administrators imposed by the Baghdad government. The military and police garrison of about 20,000 was also Shi'ite and had a reputation for torturing and disappearing young Sunni men.
Mosul's pre-occupation population was 85 to 90 per cent Sunni, with the balance made up of minority groups. Mosul sits on an ethnic fault line between Kurdish and tribal Sunni areas. (Iraq's overall population is about 60 per cent Shiite, 20 per cent Sunni and 20 per cent Kurdish.)
Little wonder that when Sunni Islamic State drove out the controlling Shi'ites, Mosul residents welcomed Islamic State fighters as liberators. But it wasn't long before they saw they were worse off than before. The reality now is that most residents want neither the Baghdad government nor Islamic State back in control.
The best option for a stable political future would be to appoint a respected local leader as governor of Mosul – or a council made up from the main local ethnic groups, including the Kurds. The Iraqi Security Forces should not have a garrison presence in Mosul. Shi'ite militia should also be excluded, as should the Kurdish Peshmerga. Law and order should be achieved through training and employing Mosul residents as police.
Reforming Mosul's governance can only be achieved by sidelining the Baghdad government from being involved in the process. The US State Department is best placed to do this.
After the fall, the other main challenge will be repairing the city. If Mosul can be restored, people will return. There is no incentive for a population to return to a place that has poor or corrupt governance, no water, electricity, or schools – or liveable housing – and has mines, booby traps and rotting bodies under the rubble.
The Iraqi government will no doubt say it lacks the money to do the work. It does have the funds, but endemic corruption would undermine reconstruction efforts. In 2016, Transparency International ranked Iraq 166 out of 176 countries for corruption, with a score of only 17 out of 100. The Abadi government is also probably overwhelmed by the scale of destruction throughout Iraq.
The US-led coalition could readily provide army construction engineer units to help rebuild Mosul's damaged bridges and infrastructure, and restore basic services, roads and housing. The US Army Corps of Engineers already undertakes major civil projects. It employs about 37,000 civilian and military personnel, making it one of the world's largest public engineering, design, and construction management agencies. It's also involved in a wide range of public works internationally.
Australia has a useful army engineer capability through our Combat Engineer Regiments. We have five regular and six reserve regiments. Their roles include clearing minefields, finding and disarming booby traps, clearing unexploded ordnance, conducting explosive demolition, purifying water, surveying, and building and maintaining roads, airfields and bridges.
Since the late 1980s, Australian Army engineers have been involved in operations in Namibia, Rhodesia, Pakistan, Kurdistan, Cambodia, Somalia, Rwanda, Bougainville, Mozambique, Timor Leste, the Solomon Islands, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Australia could take responsibility for restoring part of Mosul, while training and mentoring Iraqis to help with the task. Giving money to international organisations to do reconstruction work is undesirable because they are usually expensive and inefficient.
The most effective way to ensure that rapid and economic reconstruction takes place in Mosul is for US-led coalition members to take the initiative. European members have a national vested interest because if they don't, they could be faced with a new wave of asylum seekers from Iraq.
Unless the West is prepared to break the mould in northern Iraq and emphasise local governance, reconstruction and reconciliation, we will see the same old cycle of violence repeated, with Shi'ite excesses followed by Sunni retaliation. As one of my defence colleagues said pessimistically: "We could be back there in 10 years banging heads together again."
Since 2004, Australia has been providing infantry training for Iraq's military. We turn out reasonably competent infantry soldiers, but this effort is largely wasted because Iraq's officer leadership ranks are corrupt and lack the will to fight. (That isn't the case with the Counter Terrorism Service, which is highly motivated and aggressive, and capable of containing Islamic States.) Instead of basic infantry training, our longer-term interest would be better served by continuing to mentor the Counter Terrorism Service, and emphasising reconstruction support.
Successful local governance and restoration of Mosul could provide a blueprint for restoring other destroyed cities and towns in Iraq. As a key coalition member, Australia could significantly influence that process.
This article first appeared in Fairfax media on Friday, 17 March.