A failure by the international community to help rebuild Iraq will leave a vacuum that Russia, Iran or some new extremist group will seek to fill, warned the co-chairman of a working group in the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS. In a recent discussion at the U.S. Institute of Peace, Ekkehard Brose agreed with the top U.S. State Department official on Iraq, Joseph Pennington, that Iraq must ultimately solve its own problems. But at this point, it can’t, Brose said.

Soldiers pick their way through the ruins of Mosul, Iraq, July 11, 2017. Though Iraq officially declared victory over the Islamic State in Mosul on Sunday, a day later artillery fire could be heard in pockets of the city.
Soldiers pick their way through the ruins of Mosul, Iraq, July 11, 2017. Photo Courtesy of The New York Times/Rukmini Callimachi

Only long-term international support will enable the economic and political reforms needed to recover from the damage inflicted by ISIS and the fight against the extremist group, said Brose, a former German ambassador to Iraq who is co-chair of the coalition’s stabilization working group. Pennington, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for Iraq, also serves on the working group.

The 72-nation coalition, led by the U.S., has built support for the Iraqi government through its military campaign and early efforts at stabilization, Brose said in the July 14 discussion at USIP. The event followed coalition meetings in Washington earlier in the week.

“These achievements shouldn’t be endangered by letting Iraq fall into the abyss after it’s been stabilized,” he said.

The three days of coalition meetings in Washington coincided with Iraq’s declaration of victory over ISIS in Mosul, the country’s second-largest city. Coalition members discussed ways to increase the pressure on ISIS in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere around the globe, including by stemming the flow of foreign fighters and disrupting terrorism financing. The sessions also focused on how to improve living conditions enough in recaptured areas for people displaced by the violence to go home.

“How we think about stabilization and what we do collectively as a global community about stabilization will absolutely set the stage for Iraq’s future,” USIP President Nancy Lindborg said in introducing the event.

Just the Basics? Or More?

Stabilization sometimes refers to re-establishing the basics—clearing rubble, restoring electricity, re-establishing markets for food, and reopening schools and hospitals. Others advocate for longer-term assistance to sustain progress, including steps such as bolstering a country’s economy, ensuring economic and political reforms and guiding reconciliation.

Brose and Pennington concurred that rebuilding Iraq will be impossible without investment by the private sector. The estimated cost of reconstruction ranges from $50 billion to $100 billion, an amount no individual nation—or even the entire coalition—realistically will provide in foreign aid, Pennington said.

At the same time, international companies won’t operate in Iraq without economic and legal reforms as well as improved security, Pennington and Brose said. Curbing the country’s pervasive corruption is crucial for attracting foreign investment, they agreed. Brose remarked that, as ambassador, he received frequent complaints from German companies of shakedowns and broken contracts, and he said Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi told him in May that the country’s two most dangerous enemies were ISIS and corruption.

The need to decentralize governance in fractious Iraq, to put decision-making closer to its people, is another key to stability and reconstruction, said Pennington. The U.S. Agency for International Development has contributed significant resources and technical assistance to get the reform underway, he said. Brose said al-Abadi told him “this country doesn’t like decentralization, but we are going to continue.”

No 'Blueprint for Iraq'

The U.S. this month agreed to provide $150 million more for stabilization work administered by the United Nations Development Program and an additional $119 million for humanitarian assistance for the approximately 3 million internally displaced people in Iraq.

The U.S. will remain engaged and prepared to be helpful where possible in mediating among political factions or offering technical advice, but there will be no “blueprint for Iraq” coming out of Washington, Pennington said. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made clear to the coalition in March that the U.S. “is not returning to a nation-building mode,” he said.

“This is not only because we don’t have the bandwidth and capacity, but also because of lessons learned in the past,” Pennington said. “There’s an Iraqi set of issues that requires Iraqis to sort out.”

The U.S. government’s resistance to assisting with reconstruction beyond immediate needs “would be irresponsible” and possibly dangerous, Brose said. The U.S.  bears heavy responsibility for what has happened in Iraq since 2003, and only basic stabilization without fuller reconstruction will not be sustainable, he said.

If better conditions aren’t established, the resulting vacuum, he said, will generate ominous consequences: a return of ISIS, growing Iranian influence or perhaps a turn to Russia.

“If you like any of those options, don’t do reconstruction,” he said.

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