As ISIS Regroups, No Time to Cut U.S., U.N. Assistance to Iraq

Just two weeks ago, a U.S. special envoy acknowledged that ISIS is making a comeback, even as the future of the U.S. military presence in Iraq is in question after the U.S. killing of Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani and an Iraqi militia leader traveling with him in Iraq. Yet, President Donald Trump now has proposed again, as he did the past three years, to slash a crucial alternative to military force: foreign aid.

The president’s Fiscal 2021 budget proposal, released on Feb. 10, would carve almost $12 billion, or 22 percent, out of the State Department and international aid programs and slash almost $1 billion dollars from the United Nations, which operates critical civilian programs on the ground in Iraq. As was the case last year, it will be up to Congress to ensure those cuts don’t materialize, but unlike last year, the effort will be significantly more difficult in an election year.

And the need couldn’t be more pressing. During travels to Baghdad, Mosul and northern Iraq in December as part of a delegation with the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR), I heard Iraqis express their anger and revulsion over ISIS’ brutality. But at the same time, they voiced intense frustration over the government’s corruption and its repeated failure to take basic actions to improve their lives: protecting them from ISIS as it resumes its attacks, providing electricity for more than the half day they get now, and prioritizing economic development that could increase job opportunities. A cross-section of ordinary Iraqis have sustained anti-government protests now for four months, and their pleas are strikingly similar to those voiced six years ago and opened the way for ISIS to gain strength from an exasperated populace.

During our visit, when we asked Iraqis whether their government provided any help at all, the response we received most often required no translation — a dismissive wave of the arms, signaling resignation mixed with disgust. The responses matched the results of a July poll of Iraqis by the congressionally funded National Democratic Institute (NDI), showing how few Iraqi citizens feel the country is on “the right path.” “Only 30 percent say the Iraqi government is very or somewhat effective, down 15 points since April 2018,” the poll showed.

Such dissatisfaction was found to be one of the key reasons that ISIS was able to secure its most notable “victory” — the takeover of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, in 2014. As Rasha al Aqeedi, a researcher from Mosul, told the New York Times in 2017, “Religious ideology might have been the last point of identification.” Instead, because of rising anger over issues such as government corruption, poor municipal services and lack of employment, “the city was theirs for the taking,” she said.

ISIS is `Back as an Insurgency’

Even though Trump touted, during his State of the Union address, a “100 percent” destruction of the ISIS “territorial caliphate” it had controlled in Iraq and Syria, the group has “come back as an insurgency, as a terrorist operation,” according to Ambassador James Jeffrey, the U.S. special envoy to the global coalition to defeat ISIS, who briefed reporters on Jan. 30. The same day Trump gave his address, the Defense Department’s Lead Inspector General for Operation Inherent Resolve, the campaign to fight ISIS in Iraq and Syria, stated in its latest quarterly report that, “ISIS remained a cohesive organization with a command and control structure capable of low-level attacks.”

But while ISIS aims to push Iraq back into widespread conflict, there is still time for the government in Baghdad, the international community, and the United States to push back.

Despite the corruption and continued violence that rightfully angers ordinary Iraqis, several instances of important progress illustrate the potential. The threat of suicide bombs, kidnappings, and insecurity has declined, and the U.N. Assistance Mission in Iraq reports that, through 2018, violence against civilians had dropped considerably from 2014 highs. The number of hours of electricity each day has grown; 800 roads – more than 80 percent of the avenues that had been closed for security reasons in Baghdad – have reopened. Iraqi forces have removed hundreds of traffic-choking checkpoints; commercial markets are opening, and universities are setting records for admissions.

In addition, over the past five years, U.N. agencies – in partnership with the United States, other donors and the Iraqi government — have helped millions of people who were forced out of their homes by the conflict to return home. An infrastructure program has stabilized areas retaken from ISIS and given local populations a sense of progress.

In particular, the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) and U.N. Development Program (UNDP) have supported the return of 4.4 million Iraqis; completed 2,150 infrastructure projects, many of which have provided water and electrical service to millions; employed 35,000 people, including many women, with cash-generating jobs; enabled 39,000 children to go back to school; and rehabilitated tens of thousands of houses, benefiting over 130,000 Iraqis.

The same NDI poll that showed Iraqis overall losing hope in their government offered another piece of relevant data: views toward the government were more positive in areas that had seen greater reconstruction than those where it was lacking.

Retired U.S. Marine General John Allen and former special envoy to the global coalition to defeat ISIS, who is now president of the Brookings Institution, has applauded the U.N.’s work: “Here’s another example of when the U.N. and the United States work together, really good things can happen,” he said at a Brookings event in September.

Need to Scale Up Civilian Efforts

Still, the danger is ever present, as ISIS regroups and, separately and more recently, with the Iraqi government’s bloody crackdown on protesters.

Clearly much remains to be done — by the United Nations, whose programs have lacked the resources to scale up and to serve more of the population fast enough; by other partners; and most importantly, by the Iraqi government and its newly appointed Prime Minister-designate Mohammad Allawi (assuming he can form a Cabinet and remain in power).

A first step, as noted by the current European Union ambassador to Iraq and many others, will be for the government in Baghdad to take the lead with a proper action plan, clear priorities, sufficient funding towards reconstruction, and better utilization of its significant oil revenues. Western donors, for their part, must increase their contributions toward development and job creation, with conditions, of course, in light of the history of corruption.

This will require the opposite of what the Trump administration budget proposes, which would be a drastic $3.3 billion dollar reduction in overall humanitarian assistance accounts, along with zeroing out an international account that includes the U.N. Development Program.  Experience suggests that humanitarian, development, and reconstruction assistance are considerations just as important as weapons and, in fact, more likely to defeat ISIS in the long run.

As such, the United States and the international community should stay the course and even consider increasing humanitarian and development assistance to trusted partners. While the United States is the largest supporter for UNHCR, the agency has only 35 percent of what it calculates it needs to serve Iraq’s own displaced population and refugees from other countries who have taken shelter there.

For UNDP’s part, its infrastructure program received praise from U.S. State Department and USAID officials in December for its low overhead and impressive results, and for being the only program that has the capacity to be expanded dramatically. Yet its overall global funding has dropped significantly and is set to shut down at the end of December, despite the clear overwhelming need.

Over the last five years, the United States has generously contributed about $3 billion for humanitarian aid and rebuilding efforts in Iraq. While critical, it is a fraction of the $40.6 billion that the United States has spent to send troops and provide training and equipment for Iraqi forces.

Going forward, a more balanced U.S. assistance approach, with key civilian partners like the U.N., could play an important role in countering the resurgence of the Islamic State. This is a point emphasized by U.S. defense and military leaders. Three years ago, more than 120 three- and four-star generals wrote to Congress, stating “The military will lead the fight against terrorism on the battlefield, but it needs strong civilian partners in the battle against the drivers of extremism – lack of opportunity, insecurity, injustice and hopelessness.”

And just three days ago, retired U.S. Navy Admiral Mike Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote a letter to leaders of Congress, via the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, stating, “As active conflicts from Syria to Libya burn, and as we try to secure the hard ­fought gains against the Islamic State and Al Shabab for the long term, diplomacy and global development matter…Every military leader I served with knew this and many have testified that our civilian acuity reduces the need for military action now and in the future.”

Mullen added a handwritten note at the bottom: “The more we cut the international affairs budget, the higher the risk for longer and deadlier military operations.”

IMAGE: Student protesters call for a strike as they gather during an anti-government demonstration in the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah in Dhi Qar province on February 8, 2020. (Photo by ASAAD NIAZI/AFP via Getty Images)

 

About the Author(s)

Jordie Hannum

Executive Director at the Better World Campaign; Senior Director of U.S.-UN Relations at the UN Foundation. Follow him on Twitter (@BetterWorldOrg).