Are Iraq and the U.S. Ready to Win the Peace After the Liberation of Mosul?

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Relatives and friends carry the body of a man killed by a sniper while trying to flee fighting between Iraqi security forces and Islamic State militants, Mosul, Iraq, March 23, 2017 (AP photo by Felipe Dana).
Ellen Laipson
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi visited Washington last week, and the Trump administration greeted him by approving more troops for the fight to retake Mosul and defeat the so-called Islamic State. The Iraqi government, for all its flaws, is taking the needed risks to regain control of its territory, and its leaders know that political reconciliation is vital. The Trump administration, for its part, is focused on winning the war. What remains to be seen is whether Washington will devote the necessary resources to winning the peace, and whether the Iraqis have a plan for doing so that the U.S. can support.

In recent days, Iraq has been back on the agenda in Washington. Abadi came to town meet with U.S. President Donald Trump and to attend the first meeting in two years of all the countries that comprise the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. He spoke publicly about the challenges facing Iraq, but was mostly upbeat about the progress made against the Islamic State, the demonstrated improved capacity of Iraqi national forces, and his own commitment to the hard political work ahead to create domestic peace. Abadi spoke with pride about the work done by Iraqi security forces to win the trust of the local population and to coordinate militarily with the Kurdish military forces known as the peshmerga. He also talked about of a rising mood of national unity and purpose in his country.

Recapturing Mosul has been a long, hard slog that has at least temporarily compounded Iraq’s humanitarian crisis, but it had to be done. Any further delay would have been an existential threat to the viability of Iraq as a sovereign state. Abadi and his armed forces, working with the U.S.-led coalition, prepared for the assault for much of 2016. By January, the eastern half of the city was liberated.

Retaking the western half of Mosul, the current phase of the operation, has displaced an additional 170,000 people from Iraq’s second-largest and most ethnically diverse city, according to the Iraqi Red Crescent. As the battle moves to the dense old city, those numbers are expected to climb. The United Nations and local agencies are scrambling to provide temporary shelter and relief, even as the government hopes to persuade civilians to remain in place.

Abadi realizes that winning the peace will be at least as hard as the fighting to date. As the Christian Science Monitor’s Scott Peterson describes, what the Iraqi government does after Mosul is freed will be a “gauge of Iraq’s ability to recover from its jihadist trauma.” While liberating Mosul has been a much harder task than freeing Tikrit two years ago, there are some useful lessons to be gleaned. It’s important to persuade the traumatized population to avoid assigning collective blame against entire tribes or communities, whether for perceived collaboration with the Islamic State or for the violence that occurred during the liberation itself. Another lesson is the importance of having civilian teams ready immediately to enable people to return home, if physical conditions permit.

So far, the Trump administration has shown robust support for the military defeat of the Islamic State, including modest increases in U.S. troop levels in Iraq and Syria. Given recent reports of increased civilian casualties from U.S. bombing raids, some speculate that the new administration has loosened the rules of engagement for targeting and bombing, but defense sources insist there has been no change. Investigations are underway to determine if the U.S. was responsible for civilian deaths in recent attacks in Mosul and near Raqqa in Syria.

What the Iraqi government does after Mosul is freed will be a “gauge of Iraq’s ability to recover from its jihadist trauma.”

Trump may be seeking an early victory to demonstrate his decisiveness and to check his highest national security priority—defeating Islamic extremism—off his to-do list. Unfortunately, there’s little sign of planning for beyond the military campaign. Is the U.S. committed to sustaining the work with Abadi and the Iraqi government to strengthen its institutions and support the political reconciliation, particularly with Iraqi Sunnis, that will determine the country’s future stability?

One data point to support a proactive Iraq strategy is Trump’s recently appointed national security adviser, Gen. H.R. McMaster, who has Iraq in his blood. Since the early 1990s, he has been deeply immersed in U.S. military and civilian efforts there, from commanding the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment that freed Tel Afar in 2005 to senior positions in U.S. Central Command, where he favored civilian-led stabilization activities. In various conferences and expert exchanges before assuming his current office, McMaster expressed dismay that the U.S. did not sustain a more robust partnership with Iraq in recent years. He understands too that a policy that supports Iraq’s stability is an integral part of any strategy to contain Iran, another major priority for the Trump administration. One hopes that Abadi’s visit was an opportunity for a very practical discussion about what will be needed to strengthen prospects for integrating Sunnis and repairing cross-sectarian relations once Mosul has been retaken.

At the same time, Trump’s proposed budget cuts to civilian institutions, from the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development, to key nongovernment partners such as the U.S. Institute for Peace (USIP) send a very different signal. USIP, where Abadi spoke last week, has long been engaged in Iraq in quiet peace-building, helping communities avoid revenge killings and training Iraqis in mediation and peaceful dispute resolution. This low-profile “soft power” role, funded by the U.S. government, is an effective and low-cost contribution to Iraq’s reconciliation and long-term prospects for stability. But Trump’s first budget proposal, which was released two weeks ago, zeroed out USIP as well as several other outstanding institutions that rely on federal funding. Congress may restore these institutions’ funding in the approved budget, which would better serve U.S. objectives in stabilizing Iraq.

The burden is also on Abadi and his fellow politicians in Baghdad to demonstrate their seriousness of purpose. The big issue is winning the trust of the Sunni population in Nineveh province, complicated by an apparent lack of consensus among Sunni leaders about dealing with Baghdad. But there are also myriad smaller issues challenging the country’s cohesiveness, including new conflicts among Iraq’s other minorities; fighting has broken out between Kurds and Yazidis recently, and between Christians and the Shabak community, who are mostly Shiite and reside in disputed territories in the north. Some Iraqi analysts are very skeptical that Abadi has sufficient support among Iraqi elites, or a coherent plan for the next steps after freeing Mosul.

But compared to Syria or Afghanistan, Iraq still has a chance to function as a state that has national institutions and can use nonviolent means to hammer out differences among regions and communities. The fight for Mosul could be a turning point, if Baghdad channels the victory into productive action toward reconciliation and healing. But to increase his chances of success, Abadi must keep working to convince the Trump team to stay involved in winning the peace.

Ellen Laipson served as president and chief executive officer of the Stimson Center from 2002 to October 2015. She now is president emeritus and distinguished fellow. Her WPR column, Measured Response, appears every Tuesday.