By Bonnie Kristian
Imagine Iraq after the Islamic State. It may be difficult to picture now, but a steady stream of small advances—easily overshadowed by the chaos and deal-making in Syria—suggest that happy occasion may be closer than it seems.
After all, ISIS was forced to cede an area about the size of Ireland, fully a quarter of its territory, between the beginning of 2015 and this past July. It has lost all territory along the Turkish-Syrian border, a significant blow to the terrorist organization’s supply lines for foreign fighters and weapons alike. In June, ISIS lost the strategically important city of Fallujah, a stronghold since the beginning of 2014. And at present American ground troops are assisting Iraqi forces in the early stages of recapturing Mosul, with the assault expected to begin in October. If that victory is accomplished, the Islamic State will no longer control any major city in Iraq.
I mention all this not to strike a Pollyannaish note but simply to say Iraq after ISIS is not so inconceivable as it once might have been. So let’s say it’s 2017 or 2018 and ISIS is largely eradicated. Maybe it still has some small splinter cells and inspires the occasional homegrown attacker, but imagine ISIS is at this point done as an organized military presence with territorial ambitions.
What do we do then? What happens to U.S. foreign policy in Iraq after ISIS?
The temptation, of course, is to fall back into old patterns of misadventure. With ISIS gone, the Washington foreign policy establishment will say, it is time for America to pacify Iraq and set up the foundation for a shining beacon of democracy in a troubled region. We’ll do a little nation-building and be home in time for dinner.
But the problem with that siren song is the crushing weight of recent history—not to mention its gross oversimplification of the state of Iraq today. To begin with the latter point, consider the recent analysis of a post-ISIS Iraq from the International Crisis Group’s Joost Hiltermann at Foreign Policy. Many Iraqi Sunni Arabs have become more sympathetic to Kurdish nationalist ambitions as the two groups unite in common cause against ISIS, Hiltermann writes, but the Kurds are not given to trusting such advances, “conflating [the Sunnis] with the Islamic State and trying to exploit their current misfortune to press for an advantage in long-running ethnic disputes. They thus risk setting the stage for the next round of conflict.”
In an ISIS-free Iraq old ethnic tensions will not simply melt away. The Sunni-Shia-Kurd dynamic of conflict will not disappear. (If Mosul is freed, for instance, it may well immediately plunge into a new round of fighting as each faction attempts to claim and retain part of the city.) Nation-building attempts will be at least as dangerous, expensive, wasteful, and fraught with cultural misunderstanding as they have been any time over the past decade.
Lengthy, risky, and ultimately counterproductive entanglement is all but a guaranteed result.
Perhaps it is theoretically true that post-ISIS “Iraq can be stabilised,” as argues Ranj Alaaldin, a Mideast scholar at Columbia University who specializes in Iraq’s history of sectarian violence. But remember, as he hastens to add, the one time we even approached something resembling stability “required more than 100,000 US and UK troops acting as a buffer between warring militants, and providing the Iraqi state with the security and intelligence capabilities” it could not provide for itself. All told, the price tag (with interest) for the last 15 years of foreign policy morass in Iraq and Afghanistan will top $12 trillion.
This was, in other words, a massive nation-building project that yet failed to prevent the rise of ISIS—or even to convince many Iraqis the United States is not deliberately sponsoring ISIS’s brutality for personal gain at their country’s expense. This is hardly something prudent Americans with even an ounce of hindsight should wish to repeat.
Instead, we ought to prepare for the fall of ISIS by developing a new, restrained foreign strategy which looks to defending the United States’ national interests, narrowly defined, instead of futilely attempting to direct the future of the Middle East no matter the cost of consequence. For “unless the U.S. government conducts a sober reassessment of its objectives and strategies,” wrote retired Col. Daniel L. Davis for Politico after a recent visit to Mosul, “the U.S. will continue to expend large amounts of taxpayer dollars and some blood while unwittingly contributing to the further degradation of the Iraqi social fabric, worsening—not ending—the war.”
As Davis persuasively argues, Iraq after ISIS must likewise be Iraq after the United States. We must cease providing arms and ammunition to corrupt, changeable, and otherwise untrustworthy factions whose lust for power too often overrides their interest in peace. We must offer humanitarian assistance and refuge to the innocent Iraqi civilians of all ethnicities whose families have been decimated and lives thrown into chaos significantly because of misguided American intervention. And, crucially, we must cease inflaming longstanding antagonisms with continued U.S. military occupation and instead engage with Iraq on a diplomatic level, facilitating conversations toward stability but ultimately allowing calm to develop organically from within Iraq itself.
Such a reorientation toward American restraint is Iraq’s best hope for peace after ISIS. It will not be an easy fix or painless choice for Iraq or the United States, but it will provide a much-overdue alternative to the demonstrably failed interventionism of the last 13 years. With the military defeat of ISIS just visible on the horizon, now is the time to begin planning for America’s final exit from Iraq.
Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities. She is a weekend editor at The Week and a columnist at Rare, and her writing has also appeared at Time Magazine, Politico, Relevant Magazine, and The American Conservative, among other outlets.
This piece was originally published by Rare on October 12, 2016. Read more HERE.