Iraqi solutions for Iraqi problems

By Daniel DePetris

Last month, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi capped his first official meeting with President Donald Trump with an op-ed in one of America's most respected newspapers. The ever-beleaguered Iraqi politician had a simple message that he hopes the Trump administration will take into advisement: Iraq will need more assistance and a longer commitment from the United States if his government has any prospects of digging itself out of the mess that it finds itself in.

"We ask the United States to join us in urging the international community to fulfill its funding pledges to secure and stabilize our communities and prevent ISIS and al-Qaeda from reemerging," Abadi penned in the Washington Post. "We need U.S. investment to rebuild our housing, hospitals, schools, sanitation facilities, roads, highways and bridges." What Iraq needs as a country, in Abadi’s mind, Washington can provide.

There is no doubt in anyone's mind that Iraq could benefit from all of these things. But America’s foreign policy should be guided by our vital national security interests, not the desires of other nations.

The war on the Islamic State has ruined whatever minimal peace and stability that Iraqis achieved-- with considerable sacrifice from the American soldier and massive cost to the American taxpayer-- so it's certainly understandable why Prime Minister Abadi would like to quickly get to work on rebuilding Iraq's public infrastructure, diversifying its national economy, and helping its people resettle in their homes.

Yet there remains only superficial discussion among Iraq's own political leadership about the core reason why Iraq as a country is in such a bad shape right now: Iraq’s politicians aren’t demonstrating the leadership that is absolutely required for the nation to progress and thrive in the 21st century.

All of the humanitarian assistance, U.S. troops, and foreign investment in the world won't do any good if Iraqi politics remain dominated by sectarianism, domination, violence, and retribution. This is a political solution that can only develop from leadership within the country itself—America cannot grant this to the Iraqis, as we have learned over the last 14 years.

The resurgence of ISIS, like the resurgence of Al-Qaeda in Iraq and the proliferation of Shia paramilitaries, can only be fully dealt by getting the politics in Baghdad on the right path. ISIS wouldn't have metastasized into such a national security threat to Iraq’s national security if millions Sunnis in Mosul, Ramadi, Fallujah, and Tikrit weren't sidelined from the national power structure or treated as second-class citizens by their own government.

The intensely sectarian policies of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki - policies that included the arbitrary arrests of Sunnis for frivolous charges, the indictment of Sunni politicians for terrorism offenses, and the reneging of a commitment given to members of the Anbar Awakening that they would be incorporated into the official security forces - was a godsend to the Islamic extremist groups hoping to return to their past glory.  

Indeed, the Shia dominated political order was looked upon with such hatred by many of Iraqi Sunnis that the residents of Mosul celebrated when tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers dropped their weapons, abandoned their tanks and armored personnel carriers, and stripped off their uniforms in a humiliating retreat.

Prime Minister Abadi seems to implicitly understand that continued sectarianism would be the death of Iraq as we all know it.  He's a far more conciliatory figure than his predecessor; whereas Maliki was duplicitous and viewed the entire Sunni community as potential Al-Qaeda facilitators and supporters, Abadi has worked to partner with local Sunni militias in military operations.

The prime minister’s office is no longer an object of such derision given Abadi's talking a good game about reconciling the country's various sectarian groups for the good of the nation.  Unlike Maliki, a highly paranoid figure who saw conspiracies behind every corner, Abadi has extended an olive branch to the Sunnis by encouraging them to sign up to the Popular Mobilization Forces in their local communities in order to pressure ISIS wherever they operate.  Even the Saudis appear to believe that enough progress has been — for the first time in twenty-seven years, a Saudi Foreign Minister was sent to Baghdad to meet with his Iraqi counterparts.

Yet progress notwithstanding, Iraqi politics is sill infected by a sectarian virus.  As long as that virus exists, terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS will unfortunately be able to draw upon just enough recruits to continue challenging the Iraqi government's authority - killing thousands more in the process.

An open wallet from Washington—as Prime Minister Abadi advocated for in his op-ed—wouldn't cure his country's problems. It might serve as a temporary painkiller that buys more time, which sums up U.S. foreign policy in Iraq since the mission turned into a massive, expensive nation-building project..

Eventually that painkiller will wear off, and Iraq will ask yet again for morel More sacrifice by U.S. Armed Forces. More money from American taxpayers. More time, energy, and resources. More.

But America would get little in return.

Fortunately, Iraqi political and religious leaders know what the cure is, because it's the same prescription that the international community has written for years:

  • Reach out to the Sunni political blocs and make them an integral part of Iraq's political system.
  • Crack down on irregular militias that commit human rights abuses with impunity, while bringing others who have operated under Iraqi government control into the official security forces.
  • Nip corruption before it gets any worse and generates any more resentment between the Iraqi elite safely ensconced in the Green Zone and the Iraqi people who are forced to risk their lives simply by walking out of their doors every morning.
  • And hold the powerful to the same set of laws that an ordinary Iraqi citizen answers to.  

None of this can be achieved by a permanent U.S. military force presence or an open checkbook from Washington.

Only Iraqis can make their country great. The U.S. can build an economic and political relationship and continue to mentor and teach Iraq's counterterrorism services, but it will be leaders in Iraq who have the temperament and will to make the correct decisions for their own country.

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.

This piece was originally published by The Huffington Post on April 5, 2017. Read more HERE