What’s next for Iraq after the Islamic State?

What’s next for Iraq after the Islamic State?

By Luke Vargas   
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi poses with generals and troops after the liberation of Mosul. July, 2017. Courtesy: Iraqi Prime Minister's Press Office
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi poses with generals and troops after the liberation of Mosul. July 9, 2017. Courtesy: Iraqi Prime Minister's Press Office

“Wake” is a weekly foreign policy broadcast produced by Talk Media News and hosted by Luke Vargas from U.N. Headquarters in New York.

The following is a complete transcript of Episode 16, “Iraq After the Islamic State.”

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Luke Vargas: Earlier this month, the Iraqi city of Mosul was liberated after three years of Islamic State control. Iraq’s Prime Minister walked through the rubble of the city streets and declared victory. So what’s next? Could another terror group spring up in the Islamic State’s place?

Will Iraq’s Kurds be rewarded for their gallantry on the battlefield? Can Iraq’s government ever represent a country rife with sectarian division? And where does the U.S. fit in?

We’re taking on those questions next, on Wake.

Thanks for joining us, we’re coming to you today from United Nations headquarters in New York.

We’ve got two guests with us as we look at the future of Iraq after the Islamic State.

First up is Daniel Serwer, Academic Director of Conflict Management at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a scholar at the Middle East Institute. Daniel, thank you for joining us.

Daniel Serwer: My pleasure.

Luke Vargas: And also with us, on the line today from Germany is Celeste Ward Gventer, defense consultant and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for stability operations capabilities. She’s also spent time at the State Department, the Congressional Budget Office and in Baghdad after the U.S. invasion in 2003. Celeste, thanks for staying up tonight and welcome to Wake.

Celeste Ward Gventer: Thank you very much for having me, Luke. It’s a pleasure to be with you.

Luke Vargas: Celeste, you’ve worn a lot of hats when it comes to Iraq before. And you’re not alone. One thing I often here is that because the U.S. is that because we’ve been there for more than a decade and a half, there’s a lot of institutional know-how in the U.S. government about Iraq.

That can be good. But it can be bad, too, and those experts can get too comfortable talking to each other about Iraq and pay less attention to communicating the mission to the U.S. public. Or they can get caught up in trying to right the mistakes of the past instead of dealing with the matters at hand. I wonder what you make of that argument.

Celeste Ward Gventer: I think Iraq is an enormously complex problem. There is a lot of history to the U.S. involvement and I think there’s a lot of confusion as to what is happening now and the proper role for the United States. And so they may not be seeking to redress past problems or paper over things that went wrong before, but I don’t doubt that they’re quite confused and struggling about how to define a future for Iraq and the U.S. relationship to that Iraq.

Luke Vargas: Daniel?

Daniel Serwer: I think no one has a monopoly on wisdom, about Iraq. Lots of us have been wrong about lots of things.

Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi addresses supporters in a July 2014 video from the Great Mosque in Mosul, Iraq.
Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi addresses supporters in a July 2014 video from the Great Mosque in Mosul, Iraq.

Luke Vargas: Celeste, with the Islamic State caliphate basically over, and the group on its heels, it’s kind of hard to remember the threat they posed when they emerged back in 2014 and really eclipsed post-Bin Laden Al Qaeda as the world’s most feared terror group. As a way of measuring progress now, can you remind us of what the worst case scenario was back then?

Celeste Ward Gventer: There’s no doubt that ISIS or ISIL or Daesh, as the Arabs call them, is a terrifying group, and they’ve done horrific acts – burning to death the Jordanian pilot is just one example, the usual beheading tapes – a truly horrifying group. And you’re right that it almost makes Osama bin Laden look like a beginner, their level of terror.

I think the worst-case scenario is that they could have made far more progress than they did and captured more territory than they did, which was already substantial for a non-state actor. But it could have been even worse than that.

And so it’s good to see that they’re being beaten tactically, and that as an organization it’s not clear how much longer they can last. But the conditions that created ISIS and that originally created Al Qaeda, it’s not clear that those are gone.

Luke Vargas: Alright Daniel, so it’s taken about three years to drive the Islamic State out of Iraq mostly. Speaking just about the military side of things, how do you evaluate the campaign to get rid of this terror group?

Daniel Serwer: It’s looking pretty good. The Iraqi has been partly reconstituted, it’s fighting well, especially its so-called Golden Division, its counterterrorism forces. Iraqi security forces are cooperating well with the Kurds.

The Popular Mobilization Forces, the Shia militias that emerged to fight the Islamic State, have become officially a part of the Iraqi security forces and have been, at least most days, relatively disciplined and part of the coalition, though right now there are reports that they are committing atrocities that the Iraqi state will regret for a long time to come.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi tours eastern Mosul on. July 9, 2017. Courtesy: Iraqi Prime Minister's Press Office
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi tours eastern Mosul on. July 9, 2017. Courtesy: Iraqi Prime Minister’s Press Office

Luke Vargas: Celeste, two things are often credited with helping give rise to the Islamic State. One is geography: It helps to create an insurgent group in a desert, where it’s really hard for the government to exert control in the best of circumstances.

And the second is that the Iraqi army just was not guarding these stockpiles of weapons and trucks and cash that the U.S. gave then. So the Islamic State captured all of that and got a nice little start in life.

What is the chance those same conditions exist again and enable the rise of another terror group at some point in the future?

Celeste Ward Gventer: I think the reasons behind the existence and the rise of ISIS are complicated. And it’s probably the things that you mentioned and a number of other factors as well, including the appeal of the ideology that seems to not have waned in the region, and has persisted for some time and arguably goes back decades.

But I think one of the unique problems with Iraq that helped to fuel the ISIS phenomenon is the alienation of the Sunni population from the central Iraqi government. And out in the West, many in the Sunni population are simply disillusioned with the central government in Iraq, the Shiite-led government, and have largely concluded that they weren’t going to get much help from them, and quite the opposite.

I think that’s still very much the case, and as we look forward to rebuilding these regions, that suspicion remain.

Luke Vargas: Daniel, will another Islamic State-like group emerge in Iraq?

Daniel Serwer: I think the odds of that are dependent a great deal on what’s done to govern the territory that the Iraqi government takes back from the Islamic State. The conditions that led to the emergence of the Islamic State included the government of Nouri Al-Maliki which had become extraordinarily sectarian and anti-Sunni.

He had politicized the Iraqi army, appointing lots of people as generals who were more local to him than the professionals were, and cracking down on Sunni political protests in ways that alienated the Sunni population.

But there’s another factor that you haven’t mentioned, and that’s the collapse of order in Syria. I think it’s very difficult to write the history of the emergence of the Islamic State without the migration of the Islamic State, which had been founded in Iraq, into Syria, where the collapse of the autocratic control of Bashar Al-Assad enabled the emergence of the strong Islamic State that then re-exported itself to Iraq.

It’s hard to picture how this would have happened without the chaos in Syria.

Luke Vargas: We’ll be right back.


Luke Vargas: Welcome back to Wake, a production of Talk Media News. I’m your host Luke Vargas at U.N. headquarters in New York.

This week we’re looking at the future of Iraq after the Islamic State with our guests, Celeste Ward Gventer and Daniel Serwer.

Daniel, Mosul is liberated, though in ruins. We’ll get to rebuilding later, but what’s going to happen first in the post-fighting phase. What should we be watching?

Daniel Serwer: Security is job one, and that’s a very difficult job. You have to somehow sort out the population so that you don’t enable the Islamic State fighters to re-embed themselves with the local population, or with the population that will be returning.

And that requires a kind of sorting, one-by-one, of the population in Mosul that’s extraordinarily difficult.

Luke Vargas: Celeste, what about rebuilding? The U.S. poured billions into rebuilding Iraq last decade. Is everything we built now in ruins? What’s the scale of the job ahead?

Celeste Ward Gventer: The scale of the job in Mosul alone is absolutely massive. Estimates are that there are close to a million displaced people, internally displaced. Mosul was a city of two million people, and the estimate is that nearly half of them are outside of the city, having fled the violence and the “governance” of ISIS.

And most of the city is destroyed – the bulk of its districts are simply rubble and shards, and basic services are completely gone. There are stories that ISIS has actually booby-trapped some of the services, such as water and sewage. So the scale is substantial for the rebuilding.

In terms of what the U.S. built, I’m afraid that it’s not a very happy story. If you would like to have a cry, read the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction reports on their website. One report from 2013 said that $60 billion of U.S. taxpayer money that went into building, rebuilding Iraq has produced very few tangible results.

Click the above image to read the 2013 final report from the U.S. Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction.
Click the above image to read the 2013 final report from the U.S. Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction.

Luke Vargas: So we’ve got a major rebuilding effort, we’ve got sectarian reintegration and security threats to deal with. There’s a guy named Haider Abadi, the prime minister, running Iraq these days. Is he cut out for this job? Celeste?

Celeste Ward Gventer: Well I think that the challenges facing Abadi and the central government in Iraq would be extremely difficult for the most experienced statesman, nevermind one that is beleaguered by the substantial differences among and within Irag’s ethno-sectarian groups.

Let me add a problem to his plate: there are elections in Iraq set for 2018, and there really is going to be quite a bit of jostling and competition among and within the ethno-sectarian groups in Iraq. And the fight over Mosul to come will be played out and these dynamics will be played out as all of these groups anticipate the elections and their outcome.

It’s a very, very difficult challenge.

Luke Vargas: Daniel, If my numbers are correct, roughly 65 percent of Iraqis are Shia Muslim. 35 percent are Sunni Muslim. The war against the Islamic State has been waged in those Sunni areas, but a large number of those fighting the group have been Shia militias. What’s the worst-case scenario for Iraq on the sectarian front?

Daniel Serwer: The worst-case scenario is a breakdown of law and order that leads people once again to retreat into their sectarian groups and a war between Shia and Sunnis, between Arabs and Kurds.

It’s a very fraught situation. The only way to get past this post-war initial stage, which is ripe for all sorts of good things to happen, but also for potentially bad things to happen, is to have people who know the local terrain, who are able to negotiate local arrangements so that people don’t go back to fighting each other.

And I just don’t know whether we’ve got the kind of capacity to negotiate those local arrangements that is required.

Popular Mobilization Unit soldiers conduct military operations near Fallujah. Credit: Iraq Popular Mobilization Units Media
Popular Mobilization Unit soldiers conduct military operations near Fallujah. Credit: Iraq Popular Mobilization Units Media

Luke Vargas: Celeste, We often hear that Iran is exerting major influence over Iraq. Are there any silver linings to Iran’s influence in Iraq that we could look at – positive things that Iran might be able to contribute in Iraq?

Celeste Ward Gventer: I suppose one could argue that they could be of assistance in rebuilding the country but it’s not clear that that’s an interest of theirs, and in any event, it’s likely to be on their terms.

I think it really depends on how you view the role of Iran in the region as to whether there’s any silver linings here. And while Iraq has its own special problems, in many ways it’s a microcosm of the larger competition that’s playing out right now in the region, and which is undergoing an upheaval the likes of which we haven’t seen in decades and it’s not even close to over.

And Iraq is very much a part of that, and until many of these things can be dealt with on the larger scale, they’ll simply play out in Iraq as they have been doing for many years now.

Luke Vargas: Daniel, let’s talk the Kurds, who occupy and self-govern a lot of the Iraqi North. Kurdish leaders have scheduled an independence referendum for September. What’s the argument they’re making for independence and what do you make of it?

Daniel Serwer: They have a very strong argument for independence. They’ve been short-changed in many respects inside Iraq, especially during the Saddam Hussein period, but even since the liberation of Iraq by the Americans they’ve not always gotten all the oil revenues they think they were entitled to, they have become self-governing, they have their own parliament, they have their own security forces, they are in many respects already functionally independent from the Iraqi state.

And now they’ve contributed an enormous amount to the fight against hte Islamic State and they think that we should all show appreciation for that, and I confess that I think their argument for independence is very strong.

The problem is that the circumstances don’t permit it, and they don’t permit it in many different ways.

One is that there’s not complete cohesion around the idea of this September referendum within Iraqi Kurdistan. Another is that there’s no agreement between Iraqi Kurdistan and Baghdad on the territorial limits of Iraqi Kurdistan, and when people don’t agree about territorial limits, they tend to resort to the most often used instrument for deciding the borders, and that’s violence.

Luke Vargas: Celeste, your thoughts on this Kurdish referendum? I keep hearing that people in Iraq have more respect for regional leaders or religious leaders than they do for the central government. Couldn’t it be said that it would make it easier for Iraq’s central government if the Kurdish population were on its own and handling its own affairs?

Celeste Ward Gventer: Well I agree with very much with most of what Daniel said on this topic. While perhaps it would remove a problem from the central government, it would create far more new problems, not least the Sunni population perhaps getting an idea that, oh well that might work for us as well, perhaps we should go to three separate states.

The regional powers around Iraq will be deeply, deeply troubled by any talk of independence for the Kurds. Not only do their own ideas of what territory belongs to them encroach on Turkey, which is a well-known phenomenon, but also on Iran.

The flag of Kurdistan flies above a battlefield in northern Iraq in an undated file photo. Courtesy: Kurdistan Regional Government
The flag of Kurdistan flies above a battlefield in northern Iraq in an undated file photo. Courtesy: Kurdistan Regional Government

And so the very discussion of Kurdish independence has been a provocation for these states in the past and it’s hard to see how a negotiation for Kurdish independence could be done without dealing with the most fundamental problems in Iraq, which have been there for a long time, which is: what is the border? What is the status of the city of Kirkuk – where there is substantial oil – or in the surrounding region?

And so it’s very difficult to see how a negotiation could successfully be conducted that would allow for Kurdish independence, never mind then what.

Luke Vargas: Daniel, does the U.S. back Kurdish independence?

Daniel Serwer: What can I say – the Americans, whom the Kurds regard as their great friends, they have concerns as well, because independence for Iraqi Kurdistan will raise all sorts of questions about Crimea, about Donbas, about South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which are breakaway provinces inside Georgia.

Vladimir Putin will have his arguments in favor of independence for all of these Russian populated areas greatly strengthened if the Americans were to recognize an independent Iraqi Kurdistan unless there’s some sort of agreement between Iraqi Kurdistan and Baghdad about the process and about the outcome.

Luke Vargas: Celeste, what’s going to be the long term U.S. role in Iraq? Will there be one? Should there be one?

Celeste Ward Gventer: It’s not clear to me at all what the long-term role for the U.S. in Iraq is or should be. Right now the U.S. has chosen to stay involved in Iraq despite the enormous influence of the Iranians by training Iraqi security forces.

And without a larger regional strategy that includes Iraq and the future of Iraq and a prescription for U.S. involvement in guaranteeing some grand bargain in the region, it’s hard to see how the U.S. could get involved differently than it is right now, which is it’s better to be in – I suspect is the believe – than it is to be entirely out.

But simply training Iraqi security forces is unlikely to make a significant difference. We did that before they gave away their weapons to ISIS and ran away. So how is that being addressed?

U.S. troops wait to depart Iraq in October 27, 2011. Courtesy: United States Forces Iraq
U.S. troops wait to depart Iraq in October 27, 2011. Courtesy: United States Forces Iraq

Luke Vargas: Daniel, should we expect an American pull out from Iraq?

Daniel Serwer: It didn’t work too well last time. I think there will be some presence of the Americans left in Iraq this time, though the responsibility for reestablishing governance and for reigniting the economy, all of those heavy responsibilities will belong to the Iraqi state, not to the Americans.

What the Americans may stay in Iraq to do is to maintain the training and equipping of the Iraqi security forces, and to maintain their influence and counter the influence of Iran.

Luke Vargas: Celeste, Trump talks about devolving decision making powers to America’s generals. When it comes to the US role in Iraq, is that a good thing? How much can the generals do when it comes to setting long-term US policy?

Celeste Ward Gventer: Of course this can’t be done by the Pentagon alone, nevermind the “generals” – I’m not really sure who he’s talking about, if he means the Pentagon broadly, which would include civilians by the way – we have this little thing called civilian control in the United States.

But people have been talking for the last two decades about the need for so-called ‘whole of government approaches that bring in all of the capabilities of the U.S. government, whether it be from USAID to the State Department to the Treasury Department to Homeland Security to the military itself.

So this goes completely in the opposite direction of what has been conventional wisdom for the last two decades, which is no one agency can fix a problem by itself. In most cases you’re going to need lots of different capabilities from other agencies.

But it presents a larger issue, which is, well who is determining what U.S. strategy is in Iraq and in the region more broadly? And if that is being decided by some group of generals it’s hard to see how that is going to come out right, because you do need these other considerations, and you do need a broader view of what the U.S. is actually trying to do in the region. And that shouldn’t be limited to the military tool.

Luke Vargas: Celeste Ward Gventer is a consultant on defense institution building and was the former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for stability operations capabilities. Celeste, thank you so much for being with.

Celeste Ward Gventer: Thank you very much for having me. It’s been a pleasure talking to you.

Luke Vargas: And Daniel Serwer, Academic Director of Conflict Management at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Thanks for being here as well.

Daniel Serwer: You’re welcome.

Luke Vargas: I’m Luke Vargas, signing off, join us again next week on Wake.

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