One year after ISIS: Iraq is on the right path but must take further steps

The coming years require creative planning to create a vibrant private sector to increase national productivity and curb the oversaturation of Iraq’s public sector.
Sunday 16/12/2018
Positive trajectory. People walk on a bridge in Baghdad, November 16.(Reuters)
Positive trajectory. People walk on a bridge in Baghdad, November 16.(Reuters)

On December 10, 2017, former Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared victory in the battle to liberate Iraqi territories from the Islamic State (ISIS). The Iraqi Army, special forces and federal police, supported by the Popular Mobilisation Forces and the peshmerga, fought for every inch of territory that was occupied by the group.

Iraq was not alone in this fight. An international coalition, led by the United States, offered significant military help in the form of air support, logistics and advisory assistance on the ground.

During the 3-year battle, the Iraqi armed forces were not only fighting to reclaim lost territory and restore security; they were battling for the very existence of the country. Many analysts predicted the end of Iraq as a nation-state and others declared the end of the Sykes-Picot border between Iraq and Syria.

Iraqi soldiers were also fighting to restore their self-confidence and the trust of the country, which they lost after the catastrophic defeat on June 10, 2014, that left ISIS in control of more than one-third of Iraq’s territory. Iraq, however, proved its resilience, restored its sovereignty and bolstered national unity.

In the post-ISIS era, Iraq worked to strengthen its defence capabilities, improve security by significant measures — November 2018 witnessed the lowest violent death toll in six years — and had two elections: May 12, 2018, national elections and the September 30, 2018, Kurdistan Regional Government elections.

Despite disputes over the election results, the Iraqi parliament convened September 3 and voted to appoint a new Iraqi president, a new prime minister and 14 ministers within constitutional deadlines. The post-2003 peaceful transition of power took place for the fourth time in a country that was known for violent coups.

Despite these positive developments, Iraq has a lot of short-term work to do to set the stage for the fulfilment of strategic long-term objectives such as effective governance and service provision.

The victory over ISIS was not cost-free. Thousands of young Iraqis lost their lives in battle, billions of dollars were spent on military equipment and billions of dollars will go to reconstruction costs, not to mention the irreparable damage to Iraq’s cultural heritage and the long-term impairment of social norms.

More than 2 million Iraqis are internally displaced (IDPs) or refugees abroad. The return of IDPs will require massive efforts to rebuild towns, restore security and services and provide their communities with economic viability.

All of this requires significant funds, time and government capacity. Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi is struggling to finalise his cabinet as he faces a parliamentary stalemate over the highly coveted security ministries — the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Interior. The failure to agree on candidates for those two ministries held up the confirmation of six other ministers whose candidacy and qualifications are not in dispute.

On the governance front, Abdul-Mahdi’s government needs to pursue an aggressive agenda to meet the post-ISIS challenges of reconstruction, reconciliation and reducing the epidemic of corruption to manageable levels.

The Iraqi economy needs immediate attention to diversify revenues and create employment opportunities. Iraq’s relatively large oil exports are not enough to meet the country’s economic needs and the fluctuation of oil prices keeps Baghdad in a constant predicament.

The coming years require creative planning to create a vibrant private sector to increase national productivity and curb the oversaturation of Iraq’s public sector. This will require many supporting steps — from the creation of a functional banking system to business and investment-friendly laws and a myriad of infrastructure projects.

Another chronic challenge is electricity. Despite large expenditures on a multitude of projects, Iraq’s electricity supply remains inadequate for meeting the basic needs of consumers and is unable to support productive industrial projects. The new government has only a few months before boiling summer temperatures inflame popular resentment over power cuts.

Success on this front would earn the government a great deal of goodwill that can overshadow other shortcomings and buy the government time. However, the budget of Iraq’s Ministry of Electricity will only fund operations at the current performance level. To meet the actual needs of electricity generation and distribution, the budget needs to be increased significantly.

Overall, Iraq’s trajectory is positive. It is taking steps towards democratising and, considering the tremendous external factors that interfered with this process, we can be very optimistic that Iraqis are determined to continue until they reach the finish line. The outcome of various state actors’ invasion of Iraq in 2003 — and its subsequent regime change — came at a great cost. The international community, and especially these state actors, need to continue to support Iraq’s nascent democracy.

(This article originally appeared on the Atlantic Council’s MENA Source blog and is reprinted with permission.)