The liberation of Mosul by the Iraqi military presents the Trump Administration with an opportunity to both stabilize the region by continued successful counterterrorism and to challenge Iran.
As the Administration pursues its objective to defeat ISIS in the Middle East, continued military assistance is likely to be required. On 10 July, the senior U.S. Commander in Iraq, Lt. General Stephen Townsend, acknowledged that there is a tough fight ahead, even as he congratulated the Iraqi government for their victory in Mosul.
The preservation of hard won battlefield victories against ISIS requires non-military measures to stabilize Iraq. Ensuring security, rule of law, good governance, return of displaced persons, and economic development in Iraq will be the foundation of preventing the resurgence of ISIS or whatever its successor looks like.
A recent review by the Rand Corporation of the effectiveness of the efforts by the Iraqi Government (supported by the United Nations and the Coalition) in carrying out stabilization and humanitarian tasks indicated multiple successes including:
- Delivering aid in conflict zones and in displaced persons’ camps
- Conflict avoidance among various communities
- The return home of some 2 million of the 5.3 million displaced persons
- Sustained cooperation between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government
These Iraqi successes are a solid foundation for the hard work ahead of building responsive, inclusive government at the provincial and national level.
Beyond the immediate humanitarian and stabilization efforts, according to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, the government of Iraq has been assisted by the United Nations in the areas of governance, rule of law, delivery of electricity and water, schools, and job creation via some 350 projects valued at 240 million dollars over the last two years. These programs are the key to making Iraq more safe and stable. The U.S., the coalition, and the UN will be well served by increasing their assistance to the Iraqi government’s efforts, at a pace the Iraqi government can effectively execute that assistance.
Recent reporting by the New York Times has documented Iran’s influence over Iraqi militia forces, which were legitimized as Iraqi military units in 2016 as part of the Iraqi military establishment by the Iraqi Parliament. The Times article documented as well Iran’s deep economic, cultural, and political influence in Iraq. Lastly, and very troubling, was that the Times report also documented Iran’s desire to establish a land route to Lebanon through Iraq and Syria.
According to recent Voice of America reporting, Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Commander General Qassem Soleimani said recently in a speech that “we have helped in the procedure of purifying the Iraqi Army from Bathi elements, and it is moving towards becoming a Hezbollah-like army.” The existence inside Iraq of a second Hezbollah-like force responsive to Iranian direction, linked by land routes from Iran across Iraq and Syria to Lebanon, would be a major destabilizing factor in the region.
As the U.S. increases its efforts to check Iranian moves towards regional domination, enabling a responsible, independent Iraqi government that is not an Iranian vassal state, adds a political, social, and regional barrier to Iran’s efforts. Regional and national elections for Iraq are set for 2018. These elections, the first in the post ISIS Caliphate era, will be critical.
Iraqi elections are to a large degree a referendum on the government-of-the-day’s performance in providing security and governance—particularly rule of law and public services, such as water, roads, electricity, health facilities, and jobs. America and its allies who want to check Iran’s ambitions in the Middle East can do so by helping the current government in Iraq provide the above to all Iraqis, Shia, Sunni and Christian.
One election will not dissuade Iran from trying to achieve its objective of making Iraq a vassal state. Increasing and sustaining assistance, pre- and post-election in Iraq will, however, make Iran’s efforts to dominate Iraq more difficult. An effective, responsible, independent government in Baghdad that serves all of its citizens will pose a strategic counterweight to Iran.
The good news is that we have two senior leaders in the Trump administration who have vast experience with establishing and improving governance in Iraq: Secretary of Defense James Mattis and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster. The potential bad news is that the Trump Administration’s first proposed budget cuts the State Department and Agency for International Development (AID) budgets significantly. Congress has already signaled its displeasure with these radical cuts. It remains to be seen how the budget will be reconciled, and how much and in what areas State and AID take cuts.
Irrespective of how the overall U.S. government budget is reconciled, setting aside sufficient funds and providing program authority to the appropriate government agencies to assist and enable an Iraqi government to stabilize Iraq by being a good government for all of its citizens will be money well spent. Doing so achieves three strategic effects:
- Impede or prevent the rise of a successor organization to ISIS in Iraq.
- Resist Iranian attempts to make Iraq a vassal state. This will prevent Iran from using Iraq as a transit route and platform for power projection throughout the Middle East.
- Act as a counterweight to Iran by establishing a functioning democracy with expanding opportunity for all its citizens on Iran’s borders.
None of the above will be easy. There will be setbacks. To miss this moment of opportunity is, however, to cede to Iran a windfall it did not earn and permit the expansion of Iranian power in the Middle East. It will also condemn the Iraqi people to becoming vassals of the regime in Tehran; a fate they do not deserve.