Winning the Peace in Iraq Is Bigger Than Winning the War

The plan for Iraq's future needs to go deeper than defeating the Islamic State.


When Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi sat down with U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, the two had plenty to discuss. Unemployment in Iraq has passed the 25 percent mark, nearly doubling from two years prior; already dire sectarian tensions have recently become starker; and the country is facing a huge budget deficit. Abadi, to put it lightly, has his hands full. Yet despite the myriad pressing issues, one particular problem continues to take center stage: how to defeat the Islamic State (IS).

The fight has become a matter of legacy to both men. But to build a more peaceful Iraq, the ongoing conversation between the two leaders needs to find a way to account for Iraq’s multilayered problems, and focus on finding the long-term solutions that Baghdad needs at a time when the international community seems to be suffering from commitment-phobia. A strategy that prioritizes winning battles while governance problems fester and the aftermath of the Islamic State’s campaign goes unaddressed promises a legacy, to be sure, but an ugly one.

Even with the ultimate defeat of IS, the factors that led to its initial creation and expansion still have to be dealt with, and many are becoming more complex as the fighting carries on. Experience has demonstrated that these destabilizing conditions — the alienation of Sunnis, disagreements between the government and the Kurds over energy sales, corruption, and regional meddling in Iraq through proxies — can give birth to a new form of extremism that may even be more challenging than IS.

Most of these problems stem from deep-rooted political realities that have gone unaddressed for over a decade. Iraq’s transition out of Saddam Hussein’s brutal dictatorship was undeniably rocky. Under Abadi’s predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq was accused of pursuing exclusionary state policies that solidified divisions — elected Sunni leaders were targeted and marginalized under charges of supporting terrorism, and Sunni requests for more self-rule were rejected. The government has long struggled to provide basic services, and tenuous agreements with the Kurds and Sunnis have made Iraq a fragile state. Iraq continues to play a central role in the increasingly volatile Sunni-Shiite power struggle in the region; internal sectarian violence, a long-standing issue, has been renewed by revenge killings by groups on either side of the fighting, and competition between groups ostensibly on the same side.

The rise of IS also created new problems, however. According to the United Nations, there were roughly 2.7 million internally displaced persons in Iraq as of late March — a figure that has probably risen after the battle of Tikrit. As an oil-based economy, the country’s finances have been battered by both the IS land-grab and falling oil prices. In January, the Iraqi Parliament approved a $105 billion budget that includes a deficit of $22 billion, all to be financed through borrowing. As prime minister, Abadi has sought financial support from the international community, and American assistance was on his agenda with U.S. President Barack Obama, who has pledged $200 million in support of stabilization and humanitarian efforts. At the same time, Abadi’s administration hasn’t implemented a clear strategy to reduce Iraq’s high unemployment rate, which has gotten only worse under the current economic conditions.

Iraq’s problems will not be solved within the span of a single term of leadership both for an Iraqi leader and an American president. But both leaders should resist the temptation to simply kick the can down the road while chalking up small victories. Obama could be content with separating the violence in Iraq from Syria, and keeping it within separate borders — by then it will be another administration’s problem. Abadi might also find satisfaction in seeing Shiite areas remaining safe under his watch with a sufficient buffer with troublesome Sunni areas, and ignore the political, governance, and economic problems that ail the country.

Though there are no shortcuts, Obama and Abadi have the chance to build the foundations for guiding Iraq to peace.

Addressing Iraq’s problems at the root means encouraging and implementing more inclusive administrative policies. Obama was right when he said last summer that there’s no military solution to Iraq’s problems, and that, “The only lasting solution is for Iraqis to come together and form an inclusive government.” However, a truly inclusive Iraqi state has yet to emerge under Abadi. To do that, Abadi needs to simultaneously create avenues of participation so that the Sunnis can re-engage in the political process more widely, and keep a working relationship with the Kurds by addressing key agreements yet to be fulfilled.

Currently, Abadi has not gained the full trust of Iraq’s Sunni population, who suffered in a post-2003 Iraq dominated by a Shiite-led government. Many Sunni tribes throughout the country have yet to join the fight against IS, especially in Anbar province, which is mostly controlled by IS and other Sunni militant groups. But this dynamic can change if Abadi’s administration is more attentive to Sunni needs during the fight against IS, offering a light at the end of the tunnel for not abandoning the government during the conflict. Granting more autonomy to Sunni provinces, for example, or freeing Sunni prisoners can achieve this. A truly inclusive Iraqi government with an army rebuilt to include Kurds and Sunnis is key to mitigating the Islamic State’s advance and ensuring its defeat.

This cannot happen without Abadi ending the sectarian policies of his predecessor that alienated mostly the Sunnis and Kurds, but some of the Shiites as well.

Iraqi communities harbor historic fears of each other. And the past years, along with some security-centric calculations, have made these worse. The creation of Shiite-dominated Popular Mobilization Units — state-sponsored community militias assisting the Iraqi army in the anti-IS effort — has facilitated Iran’s influence in the country, further inflaming sectarian conflict. The proliferation of such units involve the militarization of communities from the ground up — a messy business that can end up propelling local cycles of violence that have little to do with the larger goal at hand. Washington has also recently permitted the arming of Kurdish forces, and deployed over 2,000 “military advisors” on the ground in Iraq. Iran, however, is the more visible player on Iraqi soil right now. Any military gains made through these Shiite militias could be rolled back by subsequent sectarian strife down the road.

Still, there are reasons to be hopeful. First, Abadi deserves credit for trying to reintegrate Iraqi Sunnis into the national fold in the aftermath of de-Baathification laws. These laws were introduced after the 2003 U.S. invasion, and used by Shiite-led governments to punish Baath party members and supporters of former president Saddam Hussein, who were mostly Sunni. Launching a genuinely national reconciliation program with concrete actions right now could help repair those old wounds. With the rapid militarization of Iraqi society in the anti-IS effort, reconciliation is a much-needed strategy to mitigate further sectarian violence in Iraq.

Further, the United States’ rapprochement with Iran through a potential nuclear deal by the end of the summer will certainly help bolster internal peace efforts in Iraq down the road, considering Tehran’s strong influence in Baghdad. With a nuclear agreement in hand, a confluence of interests from all three countries will require that a stable and economically viable Iraqi state emerges from the past decade of debilitating violence.

Washington’s vision for itself and the region must include a strategy that goes beyond immediate military gains or the particular interests of individual politicians. There must be a real effort to reduce sectarian violence in Iraq via the implementation of sound domestic policies, or any military success against the Islamic State will become hampered by new problems. Both President Obama and Prime Minister Abadi can plant the seeds for a more stable Iraq to emerge in the future by pursuing these strategies.

The deep-seated problems that plague Iraq and the region limit the amount of change that any political leadership can exact, but nothing constructive will take shape unless both leaders are aligned to invest in long-term solutions leaving real governance structures in place. This can only happen if both leaders recognize that their own personal legacies will grow out of the seeds they plant today. Whether they’re remembered for helping Iraq start down the long road of reconciliation is up to them.


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