It’s been more than a year since the territorial defeat of ISIS in Iraq, and the country has since made notable progress on several fronts, as I saw on a recent trip to Iraq. Concrete barriers known as t-walls are being removed from the streets, relations between Baghdad and Erbil have improved, and a more vibrant air permeates the streets of Baghdad. The peaceful election held last year was the fourth since 2005, marking an important milestone, with the formation of the new government almost complete.

Soldiers stand guard at a polling place during Iraq's national elections, in Baghdad, May 12, 2018. (Ivor Prickett/The New York Times)
Soldiers stand guard at a polling place during Iraq's national elections, in Baghdad, May 12, 2018. (Ivor Prickett/The New York Times)

This progress is real and noteworthy. But it is also reversible, with much at stake.

A USIP delegation travelled to Baghdad, Erbil, Mosul, and the Nineveh Plain last month, and we met with women, tribal, civil society and religious leaders, government officials, and members of the religious minorities who make up the rich mosaic of northern Iraq. Throughout these conversations, the country’s continuing fragility was starkly clear.

The recent elections brought some optimism that Iraq can begin to overcome sectarian divides, with Shia, Sunni, Kurdish and minority candidates running together on election slates. However, the aftermath of the ISIS occupation has reopened old divisions, created new ones, and in some instances is exacerbating the very conditions that enabled the rise of ISIS five years ago.

A lack of basic public services, from water and electricity to education and jobs, and an ingrained lack of trust in the government to address core grievances are the fault lines running through Iraq’s fragmented society. The new government is struggling to push forward critical reforms in a system rife with corruption and straining to deliver essential services equitably to its citizens, but there is limited time to demonstrate results.

Security Concerns and ISIS Families

Perhaps most important is the continued sense of citizen insecurity. The extreme ideology that spawned ISIS is still very present, bubbling up in camps and communities. According to one senior official, there were on average four ISIS attacks daily throughout February of 2019, primarily in the “disputed territories” between Iraq and Kurdistan.

There is also growing fear and resentment for the presence and power of armed groups known as Popular Mobilization Forces (PMFs). For the nation’s 1.7 million people still displaced from their homes, perceptions of insecurity are paramount, often impeding their ability to return home to areas liberated from ISIS.

An added factor are the thousands of ISIS families, held in squalid detention camps, with no clear plan for how to reintegrate, rehabilitate, or relocate them. In a meeting with tribal leaders from Anbar, they outlined a plan to enable the return of those who denounce their family members who joined ISIS. But this is easier in Anbar than in more ethnically mixed areas, where combustible concerns about safety, justice, and accountability for victims collide with efforts to enable ISIS family returns. In the meantime, these camps, with little hope, education or opportunity, are certainly incubating the next round of ISIS fighters.

The challenge for Iraq is whether and how it can disrupt the inevitable cycles of violent conflict and recurrence of violent extremism. As one tribal leader told us on an earlier visit in 2018, “You Americans have fought and won three wars in Iraq. When are you going to help us win the peace?”

Preventing Extremism in Fragile States: A New Approach

As a country plagued by all the hallmarks of fragile states—bad governance, a lack of access to justice, lack of security, and unaddressed grievances—Iraq is especially vulnerable to the continued spread of extremism. These are the conditions that enable extremism ideology to take hold and spread and, left unchecked, will enable ISIS to reboot in Iraq.

Last year, when Congress asked USIP to develop a plan to prevent the underlying causes of extremism in fragile states in the Sahel, the Horn of Africa, and the Near East, we convened the Task Force on Extremism in Fragile States, a bipartisan group of 15 leading foreign policy experts, led by the former co-chairs of the 9/11 commission.

The Task Force released its final report to Congress earlier this year, with three main recommendations: 1) Ensure all parts of our government have a shared understanding of the conditions in which extremism spreads; 2) better coordinate American efforts overseas for the long game that is required; and 3) recognize that the U.S. can’t do this alone, and pool international resources to support partners in fragile states. In short, we need a policy of prevention.

For Iraq, that means following up on the successful kinetic campaign by the Coalition and Iraqi forces to deprive ISIS of territory with an equally committed coalition of international partners that combines diplomacy, development, and security assistance focused on partnering with those elements of Iraqi society—national and provincial as well as civil society leaders—committed to establishing more inclusive, equitable governance and rebuilding not just physical infrastructure, but also the torn social fabric.

Iraq will need to develop comprehensive plans to address the potential time bomb of ISIS fighters and their families, especially as they anticipate the return of tens of thousand more from Syria. However, even beyond this enormous challenge lies the necessity of addressing the core conditions that nurtured the spread of first al-Qaida and then ISIS.

On my trip, we met with many civil society leaders, tribal groups, and participants of USIP-led dialogues who are focusing their efforts on doing exactly that, and I am greatly encouraged by their efforts. “My hope is for everyone here to have the language of forgiveness," one tribal leader said.

Like all extreme ideologies, the ideology that spawned ISIS is a virus. To prevent the virus from spreading, it’s not enough to take out or quarantine the infected. We must also strengthen the resilience of a very fragile system.

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