How to Reconstruct After ISIS

Liberation without a complementary plan for sustained recovery will leave unmet needs among fragile populations, fostering conditions for renewed instability.

A crew works to reconnect a water pipeline in eastern Mosul (March 2017).

On May 3, Noureldin Qablan, Deputy Chairman of the Ninewa Provincial Council, declared that “after Mosul is fully liberated, we need a working plan to restore things to the way they were before 2014.” Qablan’s statement comes as Iraqi military commanders predict (perhaps optimistically) ISIS’s complete defeat in Mosul by the end of May. Yet it also highlights the troubling lack of a strategy or budget for rebuilding infrastructure, governance institutions, and socioeconomic structures in liberated territory. The timing of Qablan’s statement, after seven months of hard fighting in Mosul, raises an important question: Why has no one yet offered such a reconstruction plan?

Late last month, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi explained to U.S. policymakers in Washington that reconstruction in territories liberated from ISIS will cost approximately $50 billion. This price-tag will be a difficult sell for U.S. policymakers, who are increasingly looking to spend domestically rather than on expensive foreign conflicts. However, liberation without a complementary plan for sustained recovery will leave unmet needs among fragile populations, fostering conditions for renewed instability. Numerous security officials, provincial administrators, and civil society leaders in Mosul and across the Ninewa Plains today describe the need to restore essential services, sources of income, and safety to vulnerable communities. Otherwise, they stress, militias and criminal gangs will fill the vacuum, exploiting local populations to seize resources, pursue their own self-interests, and fuel anger against government neglect.

A similar situation of marginalization and local competition gave fuel to ISIS in 2014. Long before Mosul’s collapse, ISIS’s predecessors had infiltrated municipal offices, extorting taxes from residents in exchange for absent services that Baghdad had failed to provide. These networks in part helped the insurgents seize the city and vast swathes of surrounding territory that summer with relative ease. Today, non-state armed groups are again increasingly co-opting service delivery networks while the Baghdad government remains under-resourced to provide an alternative. Their actions could leave room for local insurgencies to re-establish legitimacy among liberated populations, eventually spawning another crisis.

Bringing stability to post-ISIS Mosul will require long-term engagement from the Iraqi government and its international partners to build capacity and fund physical recovery work. The U.S government can support these efforts in three critical ways:

1. Train and support competent administrators to govern liberated areas. Following their lightning advance in June 2014, ISIS systematically eradicated existing social order and governance infrastructure in occupied territories. By August 2016, 50-75 percent of government buildings in Mosul had been destroyed, including municipal services, university, and public utility offices. At the same time, militants either auctioned or demolished houses belonging to police, army officers and residents affiliated with the Iraqi government – sometimes executing their occupants in the process.

Physical reconstruction will be difficult without strong public institutions that can ensure services and benefits are fairly distributed. In Mosul, as well as other liberated areas across the country, any future administration should develop a strategic urban vision that provides for equitable citywide redevelopment — including housing and property restitution, educational systems to remediate lost classroom time, and locally-sourced security. Staffing and developing the schools, security institutions, and municipal offices responsible for implementing recovery policies will require competent and efficient administrators who are not loyal patronage systems. American advisors with experience working inside Iraq’s complex and often frustrating bureaucracy might help reorganize, update, and re-staff local institutions. Other agencies could sponsor training programs to rehabilitate bureaucrats who have, in many cases, been out of work and without salary since 2014.

2. Encourage other nations to share the burden of reconstruction with the U.S. Supporting Iraq’s recovery is not solely an American responsibility. Washington can act to galvanize its allies to contribute to infrastructure, institutional, and human capacity recovery. In July 2016, the U.S. co-convened a conference alongside Canada, Germany, Japan, Kuwait, and The Netherlands that raised $2.1 billion in pledges for Iraq — 75 percent of which was slated for “demining and stabilization efforts.” Although this limited sum is inadequate to meet current needs across Iraq’s liberated areas, such coordination efforts to raise funds are critical. They at once broadcast the strength of American commitment to a stable post-ISIS Iraq and provide a more realistic political and financial path to achieve that goal.

The U.S. has performed such a role before. Following a November 2004 announcement that Washington would forgive 100 percent of its portion of Iraq’s debt — amounting to $4.1 billion — a group of creditor nations agreed to complementary measures, ultimately funding approximately 80 percent ($40 billion) of the country’s overall debt burden. Today, Iraq’s debt, which is projected to reach $125 billion by 2018, presents an even more serious financial challenge to the Baghdad government and its ability to fund reconstruction. Washington could reprise its 2004 leadership role to encourage international creditors to forgive all or a portion of this staggering figure and spur Iraq’s faltering economy.

3. Invest in Iraq’s infrastructure and economic recovery. Military advances into ISIS territory are revealing the devastation wrought on Iraq after three years of conflict. The vicious urban battle to liberate Ramadi in Anbar Province leveled over 80 percent of the city in February 2016. In Mosul, the Ninewa Provincial Council estimated that 40 percent of buildings on the city’s east side were beyond repair, as well as 75 percent of water and electrical systems. Thousands of schoolchildren and university students across Iraq have lost two or three full academic years, and face potentially jobless futures after liberation.

Although daunting, the task of rebuilding this infrastructure also offers opportunities for job creation and much-needed foreign direct investment. High unemployment in liberated areas leaves the Iraqi government with significant human resources to fuel a reconstruction process over which local residents can claim ownership. Washington can support these efforts by funding livelihood recovery and capacity-building initiatives, while maintaining humanitarian commitments. Encouragingly, the U.S. has already allocated $260 million in 2017 to support programs that encourage private sector investment. However, American policymakers should increase pressure on the Iraqi government to lower bureaucratic and legal barriers to trade and investment in the country’s recovery, and promote business opportunities in liberated areas through entities like the U.S. Commercial Service.

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If policymakers in Washington and Baghdad invest now in these three overarching priorities, they could prevent the need for an even costlier future intervention against a reinvigorated insurgency. Few recall how Iraqi Security Forces nearly stabilized Mosul in 2008-2011 with American assistance, or how the U.S. 101st Airborne Division made similar gains in 2003-2004. In both cases, sectarian policies from Baghdad and unchecked militia activity blocked basic services from reaching the population, negating positive developments and creating opportunities for ISIS to emerge.

Ultimately, strategic deployment of American economic resources, expertise, and leadership — combined with limited but sustained military presence — could change the rules of the Iraqi game, breaking patterns of need and grievance that fuel cycles of violence. Otherwise, the U.S. will be forced back to Iraq again.