After Mosul, the world can't give Iraqi leaders a blank check

By Daniel DePetris

In June 2014, a nihilistic terrorist group whose members thought nothing of decapitating their prisoners, massacring Shia and Christian Iraqis, and enslaving Yazidi women drove the U.S.-funded Iraqi army out of the country's second biggest city. Tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers dropped everything U.S. taxpayers provided, including $1 billion in Humvees, and beat a path away from the ISIS invaders. By the time President Obama authorized the U.S. Air Force to conduct bombing runs against ISIS targets to stop their advance, the Islamic State controlled one-third of Iraq and were at the northern gates of Baghdad.

In June 2017, ISIS's fate has shifted nearly 180-degrees. With the exception of villages in the western Iraqi desert, the city of Tel Afar, the town of Hawija, and a few neighborhoods in Western Mosul, the Iraqi-half of the Islamic State's caliphate is perhaps months away from collapse.

Iraqi counterterrorism forces, Iraqi army troops, and federal police are slowly inching their way into Mosul's old city as we speak– an operation that a Pentagon spokesman said would be "among the most difficult fighting the ISF has faced in their campaign to defeat ISIS."  The fighting in Mosul has already been brutal; one Iraqi officer, who spoke to Buzzfeed's Michael Giglio, commented that of the 350 men who were in his unit when the war began, only 150 remain. There is a very good chance the Iraqi security forces have suffered thousands of casualties in the eight-month Mosul campaign alone.

ISIS fighters in Western Mosul are surrounded and up against a force far larger, far more equipped, and far more lethal. The fighting, as the Pentagon assessed, will be long and rough; just because the Islamic State's defeat in the city is inevitable means that the jihadist who are holding out will throw every ounce of combat power they have at the Iraqi army closing in. Unfortunately for the Iraqi government, destroying the last pockets of ISIS control in Mosul will be the easy part.

But what comes next? Prime Minister Abadi is no doubt banking on a long-term U.S. commitment over the next five to ten years, if not longer. "[W]e ask Americans to assist us as we restore our infrastructure and diversity and partially privatize our economy," Abadi wrote in a March 23 Washington Post op-ed. "We need U.S. investment to rebuild our housing, hospitals, schools, sanitation facilities, roads, highways and bridges."

But after more than a decade of investing directly in the future of the country, how long must Americans foot the bill before Iraqis look inward to build their own future?

To state the obvious, entire swaths of Iraq have suffered tremendous damage, both during the Islamic State's occupation and during coalition operations to reclaim them. The country's health care system is suffering, electricity blackouts are common, and over three million internally displaced Iraqis remain in tent camps or rented apartments wondering when they can go back their homes. None of this will be alleviated without some amount of international aid, particularly given the cash shortfall of the Iraqi government

None of this, however, should excuse Iraqis from their own responsibilities. Yes, Iraq is suffering economically and politically, and ISIS remnants will likely re-invent itself into a new terrorist threat once they are driven from their last major urban stronghold. But Prime Minister Abadi and his coalition government don't deserve a blank check from Washington, the European Union, or the Arab world. All of the money, counterterrorism operators, and western advisers in the world won't matter if Iraq's political class fails to foster political reconciliation among the various groups fighting for power.

It's ultimately up to Abadi, his ministers, and the lawmakers representing the Iraqi people in parliament to protect their prosperity. In the past, the patronage and corruption in the system; the appointment of sectarian individuals to direct ministerial portfolios; the violence between Sunni and Shia; the proliferation of militia units that are both powerful and unaccountable to the state; elected officials who've placed personal ambition and fortune above their constituents in the past; and a general sense of victimhood and oppression that has colored relations between Iraq's diverse ethnic and sectarian communities have taken the form of an anvil weighing down one of the world's greatest civilizations. If those dynamics don't evolve in a more positive direction, Iraqis may go to work one morning seeing armed men who are even more extremist than ISIS in their beliefs, patrolling the streets and running things in their city.

Washington and its allies are invested in an Iraq that is economically vibrant, politically successful, and capable enough militarily to defend the Iraqi people from all threats, foreign and domestic. But the U.S. cannot deliver that for them or anyone else—their future must be earned by Iraqi leaders and citizens.

Assuming that Abadi's administration doesn't want to repeat the experience of the last three years, the cycle of violence, incompetence, and greed that has characterized how Iraq does business must be broken. 

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.

This piece was originally published by The Washington Examiner on June 13, 2017. Read more HERE.