Imagine Iraq after the Islamic State. That might be difficult to picture, but steady advances against the jihadist group suggest that happy occasion may be closer than it seems.
After all, ISIS was forced to cede an area about the size of Ireland, fully a quarter of its territory, between the beginning of 2015 and this past July. It has lost all territory along the Turkish-Syrian border, a significant blow to its supply of foreign fighters and weapons. In June, ISIS fled the strategically important city of Fallujah, a stronghold since the beginning of 2014. And at present, American ground troops are assisting Iraqi forces in the early stages of recapturing Mosul, with the assault expected to begin in October. If they’re victorious, the Islamic State will no longer control a major city in Iraq.
I mention all this not to strike a Pollyannaish note, but simply to say that a post-ISIS Iraq is not so inconceivable as it once might have been. So let’s say it’s 2017 or 2018 and ISIS is largely eradicated, save for some small splinter cells and an occasional homegrown attacker.
What do we do then?
The temptation, of course, will be to fall back into old patterns of misadventure. With ISIS gone, the Washington foreign policy establishment will say that it’s time for America to firm up the foundation for a shining beacon of democracy in a troubled region. We’ll do a little nation-building and be home in time for dinner.
The problem is the crushing weight of recent history — not to mention its gross oversimplification of the state of Iraq today.
To begin with the latter point, consider the recent analysis of a post-ISIS Iraq from the International Crisis Group’s Joost Hiltermann at Foreign Policy. Many Iraqi Sunni Arabs have become more sympathetic to Kurdish nationalist ambitions as the two groups unite in common cause against ISIS. But, Hiltermann writes, the Kurds are not given to trusting such advances, “conflating [the Sunnis] with the Islamic State and trying to exploit their current misfortune to press for an advantage in long-running ethnic disputes. They thus risk setting the stage for the next round of conflict.”
In an ISIS-free Iraq, old ethnic tensions will not simply melt away. The Sunni-Shia-Kurd dynamic of conflict will not disappear. Nation-building attempts will be at least as dangerous, expensive, wasteful, and fraught with cultural misunderstanding as they have been in the past.
Lengthy, risky, and ultimately counterproductive entanglement is an all but guaranteed result. And don’t forget, the long-term price tag (with interest) for the last 15 years of morass in Iraq and Afghanistan already tops $12 trillion. This was a massive nation-building project that yet failed to prevent the rise of ISIS — or even to convince many Iraqis the United States is not deliberately sponsoring ISIS’s brutality. This isn’t something prudent Americans should wish to repeat.
Instead, we ought to prepare for the fall of ISIS by developing a new, restrained foreign strategy that stops futilely attempting to direct the future of the Middle East. For “unless the U.S. government conducts a sober reassessment of its objectives and strategies,” writes retired Colonel Daniel L. Davis for Politico after a recent visit to Mosul, “the U.S. will continue to expend large amounts of taxpayer dollars and some blood while unwittingly contributing to the further degradation of the Iraqi social fabric, worsening — not ending — the war.”
As Davis persuasively argues, Iraq after ISIS must likewise be Iraq after the United States. We must cease providing arms to corrupt, interchangeable “allies” whose lust for power too often overrides their interest in peace. We must offer humanitarian assistance and refuge to the innocent Iraqis of all ethnicities whose lives have been thrown into chaos because of the unintended consequences of American intervention. And, crucially, we must cease inflaming longstanding antagonisms and instead engage with Iraq on a diplomatic level, allowing calm to develop organically from within Iraq itself.
Such a reorientation is Iraq’s best hope for peace after ISIS. It will not be an easy fix or painless choice for anyone, but it will provide a much-overdue alternative to the demonstrably failed interventionism of the last 13 years. With the military defeat of ISIS just visible on the horizon, now is the time to begin planning for Iraq to stand on its own.