Iraq After ISIS

What are the Prospects for Stability and Prosperity?


Former US ambassador to Bahrain

With great skill, bravery and sacrifice, the Iraqi Security Forces are well on their way to defeating ISIS.  Ramadi, Fallujah, Mosul and Tel Afar have been retaken.  The last bastions of ISIS resistance in Hawija and al Qaim are under assault, or soon will be.  In short, there is no doubt that the tide of battle has turned decisively in Iraq?s favor, and ISIS as an organized military force in Iraq will soon cease to exist.  

 Unfortunately, our success against ISIS does not necessarily guarantee Iraq?s future stability and prosperity.  Winning the war is not the same as securing the peace.  Past experience has shown us that victory on the battlefield is not necessarily followed by an end to violence.  Until now, forces bent on the destruction or control of the Iraqi state have always found new and inventive ways to attack and weaken governmental control at both the federal and local levels. 

 Defeat of Saddam Hussein in 2003 and the multiple failures of post-conflict governance produced the rise of Al Qaeda in Iraq.  Prime Minister Maliki responded to the success of the Sahwa by disbanding the Sons of Iraq and ruthlessly persecuting Iraq?s Sunni minority, which, along with America?s precipitous drawdown of forces, sowed the seeds for the 2014 onslaught of ISIS and the establishment of the Islamic Caliphate. 

 What will prevent the evolution of new, more lethal movements in the wake of ISIS?s defeat?  The massive destruction and dislocation that Iraq has witnessed in the past 3 years create the conditions for further unrest in the future.  Four strategic threats imperil Iraqi stability and prosperity.  The key question that must be answered is:  Have Iraqis and their friends in the international community sufficiently learned the lessons of the past in order to prevent history from repeating itself?  

 Strategic Threats

 Four strategic threats loom on the horizon and, if not met decisively, are likely to prevent Iraq from fulfilling its rich potential.  Each has contributed to Iraq?s inability to build a strong, peaceful and unified state since 2003.  All remain problematic, despite the defeat of ISIS.   

 1.        Governance

 Ungoverned spaces are breeding grounds for terrorism.  Areas that central or local government cannot control become havens for groups bent on destroying the existing order. Without strong, well-functioning security and police forces, judiciaries and municipal authorities capable of providing reliable social services and civil order, there is little to prevent non-state actors from seizing territory and fomenting insurgencies.  The weakness of governmental institutions at both the federal and community level, therefore, represents a systemic vulnerability that is ripe for exploitation by both indigenous movements and outside powers. 

 We saw this in the case of both Al Qaeda in Iraq and ISIS.  In 2004-2006, foreign fighters, allied with Iraqi opponents of the national government, poured into Iraq through eastern Syria and seized control of communities in Fallujah, Ramadi and western Iraq, which they used as a base of operations against the central government in Baghdad.  Local authorities were either incapable of protecting residents or conspired with the revolutionaries.  Even when the insurgencies were defeated, as in 2008, the lack of effective governance in the liberated areas allowed ISIS not only to retake them, but also to expand the areas under its control. 

 There are some indications that this time is different.  The Iraqi Security Forces have become much more professional and effective since 2014.  The international community is providing significant assistance to rebuild Mosul and to resettle Iraqi refugees. Some elements of the central government recognize that local authorities must be given the authority and resources necessary to secure their communities and provide services for their residents, especially in the Sunni areas. 

 Nevertheless, these positive indicators will come under increasing pressure in the months and years to come.  If political rivalries among competing factions in the central government produce the kind of discord and gridlock that we have seen in the past, today?s gains will quickly come undone.  Managing governance in the areas of Iraq that have been liberated from ISIS will be an especially difficult challenge.  How will the Iraqi Sunnis be re-integrated into the Iraqi body politic? What will happen with the Shi?a militias that helped drive ISIS from Mosul and other Iraqi territories? Will the U.S. encourage the promising signs of Iraq's re-integration into the Arab fold, or will Iran be allowed to further deepen its influence. What role will the region?s Arab states play in addressing all these questions?

 2.        Outside Powers

 Several of Iraq?s neighbors do not want to see a unified, powerful neighbor on their borders.  Rather, their interest lies in keeping Iraq divided and weak.  Each has played an important role in fomenting sectarianism, supporting violent insurgencies, undermining governmental authority, creating armed proxy forces and hindering economic development.  Iran is obviously the foremost among these regional rivals, but Syria and Turkey have also contributed significantly to Iraq?s troubles.  For years, Turkey turned a blind eye to ISIS?s use of its territory as a base of operations against Syria and Iraq.  Syria?s historical antagonism toward Iraq is unlikely to abate, even though Bashar al Assad currently has hands full in managing his own internal unrest.

 Iran, however, remains the greatest threat not only to Iraq, but to all who seek to help it become a strong and viable state.  The last thing Iran wants is for Iraq to be in a position to challenge its regional dominance.  Moreover, securing a land bridge between Tehran, Damascus and Beirut requires Iran to control Iraqi territory.  Finally, Iran?s ambition to be the recognized leader of Shia Islam ensures that its rivalry with Iraq?s marja-iyah and efforts to exert influence in Najaf will continue.  

 Iran has a wealth of tools that it manipulates to institutionalize its domination of Iraq.  Politically, many of Iraq?s leading officials take their orders from Tehran.  Iran has infiltrated Iraq?s Security Forces to a dangerous degree and retains control of several powerful independent militias. Iran?s penetration of the Iraqi economy is pervasive and designed to perpetuate Iraq?s position as a client state. 

 Can a modus vivendi be found that both addresses Iran?s legitimate security concerns and provides a sufficient degree of independence to allow Iraq to function as a fully sovereign state?  How Iraq and its allies answer this question will determine the fate of the nation. 

 3.        Sectarianism and Ethno-nationalism

 Both outside powers and Iraqi leaders are exploiting sectarianism and ethno-nationalism in order to satisfy their individual political ambitions and in ways that undermine national cohesion. Iran?s clients in Iraq?s ministries, Parliament and local councils are dedicated to policies that limit Sunni political participation and marginalize their access to governmental resources and services.  Through its influence in the military and armed militias, including the Hashd al Sha?abi, Iran presents a serious obstacle to the exercise of Iraqi state control over its territory.  In these circumstances, it is difficult to see how patriotic, nationalist Iraqi leaders ? of which there are many ? can succeed in healing the divisions of the past and build a unified state that responds equitably to the needs of all its citizens. 

 Iraq?s Sunni community is also divided and at war with itself.  One should not forget that Al Qaeda and ISIS received meaningful support from many tribal leaders and ordinary citizens.  The armed resistance to Shia domination could not have achieved the level of destruction that Iraq has witnessed without the active complicity of significant portions of this community.  While this is understandable, given the brutal repression, political marginalization and multiple broken promises that Iraq?s Sunnis  have suffered, ISIS?s defeat does not necessarily represent a decisive turning point.  If, in the present circumstances, Iraq and the international community fail to meaningfully address the legitimate grievances of the  Sunni population, a new and potentially more lethal form of sectarian-driven terror will inevitably reassert itself.

 The territorial ambitions and protection of minority populations throughout Iraq (Turkmen, Kurd, Assyrian, Chaldean, Yazidi, Alawi) further threaten Iraq?s national reconciliation.  The outcome of the KRG?s September 25 referendum on independence is not in doubt, and its impact will have far-reaching consequences for the future of Iraq.  At a minimum, the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) will push for increased autonomy and economic concessions from the central government in Baghdad.  Turkey, Iran and Syrian elements, which all have a stake in the future shape and policies of the KRG, will take an active role ? and not necessarily a positive one ? to protect their interests.  The competition among all these different actors for power, influence and control of the KRG and the surrounding territory that includes Kirkuk and Nineveh province presents the very real prospect of future conflict. 

 4.        Corruption

 Corruption is a cancer that, if not controlled, could well destroy the Iraqi state.  It will undermine citizens? faith in government and loyalty to the state.  It will prevent foreign investment and prevent the success of reconstruction efforts. Without effective governmental control of spending and revenues, Iraq?s wealth will find its way into the pockets and empower groups that put their interests ahead of those of the state. 

 International aid agencies, non-governmental organizations and the Iraqi government have documented the extent of corruption.  In the military, between 30,000 and 50,000 soldiers who don?t exist have received salaries, which cost the Government up to $380 million/year.  A Transparency International study revealed that 35% of Iraqis had to pay bribes to police officials.  A World Bank survey of businesses found that 60% of the firms surveyed said that they were expected to give gifts to secure government contracts.  The OECD documented the cost of oil smuggling at nearly US$ 7 billion between 2005 and 2008.

The good news is that Iraq?s leaders recognize that corruption is a serious problem.  The bad news is that until now, and despite serious efforts, they have not been able to bring it under control. 

 Reasons for Optimism

 Despite these dangers, there are reasons for optimism.  On many occasions over the past 10 years, Iraq has stepped back from the brink of state collapse.  Many feared that the 2006 bombing of the Al Askari mosque in Samarra would produce a civil war, but Iraqis came together and refrained from the mass sectarian bloodletting that the attack was designed to provoke. Operation Charge of the Knights in 2008 eliminated the threat of large-scale insurrection.  Iraq?s population mobilized in 2014 to prevent ISIS from taking Baghdad Airport and halted its advance. Iraq?s 4,000 years of history as a civilization has produced a sense of national pride and shared destiny from which to draw confidence.  Through many millennia of invasion and conflict, Iraq has managed to survive and thrive. If Iraqis can draw on this shared heritage once more to confront today?s challenges, they will succeed. 

 Iraq?s leaders appear are moving in the right direction.  Prime Minister Abadi has taken meaningful steps to fight sectarianism, to strengthen the armed forces as a truly national institution and to devolve power to regional governments.  Dialogue among Iraqi political actors has intensified recently.  Promising talks beginning between Sadrists and Sunni groups, the fracturing of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), and the improving relations between Iraq and Saudi Arabia signal a strengthening of Iraq?s Arab identity and a growing popular rejection of Iranian domination. Parliamentary elections in 2018 offer the very real prospect of potentially transformative political alliances that can put Iraq on the right path toward reconciliation and effective governance. 

 At 4.4 million barrels per day, Iraqi oil production has reached historic highs.  In 2016, Iraq?s real GDP increased by 11 percent. The IMF sees medium-term growth rates as positive.  In what market analysts described as a strong endorsement of what the country has achieved in recent years, international investors rushed to buy Iraq?s first independent bond sale in more than a decade.  The USD$ 1billion bond sale brought in USD$ 6.6 billion of orders. 

 Iraq?s military has demonstrated that they are an effective fighting force that can defeat a capable enemy.  As part of the campaign against ISIS, the international community, led by the United States, has assembled a coalition of over 70 nations that has provided important security, logistical and humanitarian assistance to help stabilize Iraq. 


 The depth and complexity of the threats facing Iraq ? governance, sectarianism, foreign interference and corruption ? make it tempting to dismiss as unlikely the prospects for future stability and prosperity.  As someone who has spent significant time working in Iraq with patriotic Iraqis of outstanding ability and integrity, I would not endorse such pessimism.  The fact of the matter is that the Iraqi people have proved time and again their resilience in the face of the most daunting adversity. 

 The United States bears its share of the responsibility for the current state of affairs in Iraq.  Much has been written about the mistakes we have made. Responsible Americans will admit that we can and should have done better.  One thing, however, should be beyond doubt:  the United States wants to see a strong, united and prosperous Iraq that is a force for good in the region.  Speculation that we have in interest in weakening Iraq and keeping it divided is simply wrong. The humanitarian, economic and socio-political costs of such a policy would be disastrous for the United States and its allies.  Too many Americans have sacrificed too much to abandon Iraq to the forces bent on its destruction or subjugation.   

 Nevertheless, we must consider the very real danger that U.S. policymakers in the Trump Administration and Congress reduce our nation?s support for Iraq, as we did after defeating Russia in Afghanistan or in 2010-11 when the Obama Administration drew down U.S. forces and turned its political/diplomatic focus to other priorities.  Even today, many Americans fail to appreciate these lessons that history has taught us. They are tired and have grown impatient with the cost of lives and treasure spent in Iraq.  There is little domestic political appetite for an open-ended commitment of resources to a seemingly endless and intractable conflict. 

 Iraq cannot succeed alone, however.  It needs the sustained and robust support of the world?s sole superpower.  Securing this support will require two things: 1) a concerted effort on the part of Iraq?s leaders and its friends in the United States to persuade Americans to stay the course and remain engaged; and 2) progress on the ground in Iraq.  To a great extent, Iraq?s fate is in the hands of the Iraqi people.  If they can, with our help, demonstrate positive movement in managing their multiple challenges, then Americans will be more willing to maintain our commitment to Iraq.  Small but meaningful steps to end government gridlock, constrain militias, empower local councils or hold public officials accountable will significantly enhance the case for continued American engagement.