Iraq and the international community must avoid the mistakes of the past
Iraqis are celebrating ISIL's demise, but greater challenges are ahead
The Iraqi Security Forces are to be congratulated for the liberation of Mosul. It has come at a high cost. In the nine-month battle to liberate the city, around 1,000 Iraqi soldiers – the majority from the special forces – have lost their lives, half the city’s population has been displaced, historical sites have been destroyed and the infrastructure devastated.
The immediate challenge is to restore basic services such as electricity and water, and ensure food supplies. Nearly a million people have been displaced by the conflict; they will need help returning to their homes and getting their lives back together. Local councils will need to agree on who gets what contracts and to oversee the implementation of reconstruction.
Security in the city will remain tenuous in the months ahead. There are likely to be revenge attacks and reprisal killings against those perceived to have collaborated with ISIL. And extremist cells may carry out bombings as they revert to insurgency tactics. It is imperative that security, especially policing, is localised and recruited from the citizens of Mosul. Once they are in place, Iraq’s army must withdraw to the barracks. In addition, the various militias will also need to withdraw and demobilize.
Iraq needs to develop legitimate and capable local governance to provide transitional justice, strengthen communities and take them forward together. This is made all the more complex given the relations between the population that ISIL controlled and the central government in Baghdad, which is perceived by many Sunnis as corrupt, sectarian and aligned with Iran.
Mosul – and Aleppo – were once great interlinked trading cities and centres of Sunni Islam in this part of the Arab world. Reconstruction is important not only to functioning services, but also to restore pride and demonstrate responsible governance after ISIL. Immediate initiatives should be to rebuild the university and the mosques. In its dying days, ISIL blew up the Al Nuri mosque and its leaning minaret. The 12th century minaret is featured on Iraq's 10,000-dinar banknote and was the main symbol of the city. A replica of some sort, or a monument to it, should be created. And as people come back to their city they will need housing: it would be a wonderful – and diplomatically smart – gesture from Riyadh and Abu Dhabi if they were to offer to underwrite the central government’s costs.
The situation today is much worse than it was in 2003. Back then, Iraqi cities were not devastated. And Iraqis, for the most part, hoped the coalition would turn the country into Dubai within six months. Instead, the US policies of debaathification and dissolving the security forces led to state collapse and civil war. Rather, it is more similar to 2009 after the surge of US forces and the Sunni Awakening crushed Al Qaeda in Iraq. The military strategy had a great psychological impact and changed the strategic calculus of different groups in Iraq. Working closely together, American and Iraqi commanders pacified the country by protecting the population, reaching out to insurgents and brokering ceasefires.
All the indicators at the time pointed in a positive trajectory. But then it all unraveled. Things fell apart because of the failure of politics. The Obama administration failed to uphold the 2010 election results and to broker the formation of a new government. In its rush for the exit, America gave up its role of moderator. It gave up its soft power as it withdrew its hand.
It remains to be seen whether Donald Trump will follow the same path as his predecessor, and seek to declare victory over ISIL and extricate US forces from Iraq. Should the US disengage again, it will enable Iran to project its influence even further. Iran is close to achieving its goal of a land corridor to the Mediterranean Sea, cutting across Iraq and through Syria.
Despite the awareness of the need for a plan post-ISIL, there does not seem to be clear leadership, resources or an agreed way ahead. The United Nations estimates that it will cost $1 billion to repair basic infrastructure. The international community is tired of throwing money at Iraq. This too is an area where Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states could help. Iraq is not a poor country – but it suffers from widespread corruption and remains embattled.
To avoid a repeat of what happened before, Iraq’s political elites will need to pass and enforce important reforms. This includes tackling corruption, delivering on better governance, and, most especially, reintegrating the Sunnis into a genuine power-sharing government. It also means finding a way to work not just with Iran, Turkey and the US but also with its key Arab neighbours. If they fail to do so, there is a real risk of ISIL appearing a few years down the road.
As Iraqis today celebrate the demise of ISIL, the challenges ahead are great. They are extraordinarily resilient people. But the prospects for meaningful change are not encouraging. East Mosul was liberated five months ago, but there has only been a slow resumption of services. The province of Anbar is still without any. The Kurds intend to hold a referendum on independence in September, a step closer to the breakup of Iraq. Provincial and national elections are due to take place next year, with different militias looking to capitalize and translate their military successes into political gains.
Despite everything, there remains a desire by Iraq’s Arab inhabitants, at least, to remain together as a country. If only Iraq’s leaders would listen to them.
Emma Sky is Director Yale World Fellows and author of The Unraveling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq