Mosul has been liberated. Tal Afar has been liberated. One by one, the last ISIS strongholds in Iraq are falling to the Iraqi armed forces and their coalition allies. These are important markers that the war against Da’ish – at least on the Iraqi side of the border – is close to won. Now for the hard part.
I wrote something similar after the fall of Baghdad in 2003, and my great fear is that the United States will make the same mistakes all over again. As was the case then – and again in 2011 – the United States and its allies have accomplished an important and impressive, but ultimately straightforward, military feat. Da’ish is not yet dead, but its military hold on Iraq is all but gone. Unfortunately, all of the problems that gave rise to Da’ish remain, burbling under the surface. Unless Washington and (increasingly) Baghdad are willing and able to do what they have failed to twice in the past, the defeat of Da’ish may prove to be nothing more than another chapter in our long, Mesopotamian travail.
Of course, Iraq’s military campaign is not quite finished. Da’ish continues to hold out in places like Hawija in north-central Iraq and in the middle Euphrates river valley beyond the Iraqi town of Hit and on into Syria. Da’ish fighters will have to be rooted out of these strongholds as they have from so many other places. The fighting will doubtless be difficult and Da’ish will try to lash out elsewhere as best it can. But after three years, Iraq’s security forces and their Coalition partners understand how to wage these battles. They have the numbers and the firepower to finish Da’ish off and it will be hard for it to seriously disrupt the conclusion of this campaign. As painful as these remaining fights may be, they are likely to pale in comparison with the challenges that must follow.
First, even the military side is not without its problems. Of greatest importance is the question of the Shi’a militias. Some of these merely answered the call when Iraq’s greatest Shi’a religious figure, Grand Ayatollah ‘Ali Sistani, called them to defend Baghdad from Da’ish. But others predated the fall of Mosul and have extensive ties to Iran. These militias represent alternative sources of military power and it would be tragic for Iraq if they evolved into an Iraqi version of Hizballah or the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, with all of the problems they created for their countries.
Economically, Iraq remains a basket case. Between its large and rapidly growing population and the lingering need to rebuild after four wars and a dozen years of sanctions, Baghdad faces intimidating demands for resources that its oil-dependent and corruption-plagued economy is struggling to meet. It is now the fourth largest oil producer in the world (after Russia, Saudi Arabia and the U.S.) but we all know that the oil market is not what it used to be. The United States and other Coalition partners have temporarily stabilized Iraqi finances with a basket of World Bank, IMF, and bilateral loans, but these won’t last for more than a few years and Iraq cannot afford to keep borrowing at this rate for very long.
Politically, Iraq remains badly divided – both in organization and perspective. Its minority Sunni community desperately needs help rebuilding its key towns and cities after their destruction under Da’ish. Moreover, they need to see real political reconciliation if they are going to trust Baghdad not oppress them as the Maliki government did in 2009-2013 (which paved the way for Da’ish in the first place). In stark contrast, Iraq’s majority Shi’a population is fixated on the need for political, bureaucratic, and economic reform so that they can live the better lives they have been promised since 2003. For their part, Iraq’s Kurds are focused on the longer term goal of independence from Iraq and the near-term need to extract more resources from Baghdad to address their own (even-more-severe) economic problems.
Yet Iraq’s political class, particularly its Sunni and Shi’a Arab leaders, are fixated on something else entirely: national and provincial elections expected to be held in spring 2018. As a result, most are wholly absorbed with electioneering and political manoeuvring and very few actually want to do the hard work of governing – both because it is a distraction and because failure would undermine their election prospects. In short, Iraq’s communities are all focused on very different goals, all of them difficult to attain on their own, far more so given the lack of unity among them.
Short and Long Term Approaches
The good news is that there is no reason to believe that Iraq is a lost cause. There is still a lot of good material to work with, and some very important positive trends. For instance, most Iraqis want an end to the sectarian violence and have learned not to heed the siren-song of militias and fear-mongers that led them to civil war twice in the past. Prime Minister Abadi appears to know what has to happen to move Iraq forward and has shown real courage in pursuing it at numerous times in the past, even if his lack of political experience means he sometimes missteps. Moreover, many Iraqis know that the liberation of northern Iraq from Da’ish and the stabilizing of Iraq’s economy were only possible because of American assistance and there is a noteworthy consensus among Iraqi leaders (including those most closely tied to Iran) that a residual American military presence and continued American assistance are useful if not essential.
The real key is for the United States to make sure that the next year is not wasted. While Iraq’s finances remain stable and the populace continues to bask in the military victory over Da’ish, there is an opportunity for Baghdad and Washington to build a foundation for a better Iraq over the long term. But those conditions will not last forever, and probably not for very long.
Obviously, finishing off Da’ish comes first. That seems likely to take anywhere from 6-12 months. After that, Washington and Baghdad need to work out a longer term agreement that would keep U.S. troops in Iraq as trainers and advisors afterwards. Two things matter on this. First, the U.S. should not get wrapped around the axle about having the Iraqi parliament ratify a Status of Forces of Agreement as the Obama Administration did. There are many ways to skin that cat, most entailing far fewer political obstacles – like simply retaining U.S. forces under the current exchange of letters between Baghdad and Washington from 2014. Second, it would be preferable to keep 10-20,000 U.S. troops in Iraq both to reassure Iraqis that the U.S. presence is robust enough to help them secure the country and to provide adequate support to maintain the (modest) capabilities and cohesion of the Iraqi security forces.
Beyond this, it is critical to the interests of both the Iraqi and American governments that Baghdad be seen as addressing the most pressing needs of all of its people and doing so in the next 6-12 months, preferably before the Iraqi elections. That does not mean that Baghdad needs to fix every problem. Simply that they need to be seen as trying to fix the most important ones. The best way to do that would be for the U.S. and Iraqi governments to identify a handful of important, high-profile projects that can show tangible progress in a year or less and that would have a meaningful impact on Iraqi lives. There are many such projects to choose from, but I will offer up four that I believe fit the bill:
– Overhaul, modernize, and digitize the Iraqi banking sector. This would dramatically improve interstate trade, internal commerce, and investment while also taking a big bite out of corruption.
– Along similar lines, introduce e-government programs that would diminish (and potentially even eliminate) the corruption and time involved in getting any public service from driver’s licenses to building permits.
– Start construction of a modern superhighway from the Iraqi-Jordanian border to Baghdad, with tributary roads linking key population centers in Anbar province and development money to build industrial and commercial centers at various points along the road.
– Start building hospitals and health clinics across Iraq. Iraq’s healthcare sector has been decimated by the wars and sanctions and it would make a major and immediate impact on people’s lives if they had access to better quality healthcare.
Meanwhile, the United States and United Nations should take responsibility for three compelling issues: (1) beginning a national reconciliation process among senior Iraqi leaders – primarily Sunni and Shi’a, but also including other minority groups as well; (2) investigating and possibly reforming Iraq’s Independent High Election Commission to ensure that Iraq’s elections are fair and free; and (3) overseeing talks between Baghdad and Erbil over the status of Iraqi Kurdistan. On this last issue, Iraqi-Kurdish talks should run on two parallel tracks, one focusing on a long-term (5-10 years) process for peaceful Kurdish secession, and a second focusing on Baghdad-Erbil relations in the short term, to include sticky issues like security cooperation, administration of Kurdish occupied territory, oil revenues, and fiscal policy.
The last thing that the Iraqi government will need considerable American assistance in handling is the question of the militias. Because of their domestic power and Iranian backing, these cannot simply be handled by fiat. They need to be slowly integrated into Iraq’s security forces at the individual level. Most of their leaders need to be rewarded for their service and give respectable positions within the Iraqi government or else significant pensions for their service. Any attempt to break them or disband them, let alone punish them, could break Iraq instead. But a key will be to build up the power and popularity of the Iraqi government to the point where its leaders can negotiate with the militia leaders (and the Iranians) from a position of much greater leverage. The best way to do that would be to accomplish all of the other steps on this punch list above.
Iraq is hardly a lost cause and there is once again reason for optimism. But it is not going to fix itself. It will need help from many entities and countries, the United States first among them. If we are willing to do so, we may yet leave the Persian Gulf more stable and peaceful than we found it. If not, we are likely to find ourselves fighting still another war there in the not too distant future.