Heather Selma Gregg is an associate professor at the Naval Postgraduate School’s Department of Defense Analysis. She is the author of Building the Nation: Missed Opportunities in Iraq & Afghanistan (Potomac Books, 2018), The Path to Salvation: Religious Violence from the Crusades to Jihad (Potomac Books, 2014), and coeditor of The Three Circles of War: Understanding the Dynamics of Modern War in Iraq (Potomac Books, 2010). She has spent time in several regions of conflict, including Palestine/the West Bank, Croatia, and Bosnia.
It has been just over a year since finishing Building the Nation: Missed Opportunities in Iraq and Afghanistan, and yet so much has happened in both countries. While many of the developments are discouraging, there is still hope that these countries can repair their national unity, develop their political, economic, security and legal sectors, and work for a better future.
In Iraq, citizens and the government continue to restore social and political life after the Islamic State, which at its height controlled a significant portion of the country, including Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. Despite driving ISIS from Mosul at the end of 2017, Iraqi security forces continue to confront ISIS remnants throughout the country, which have now reverted back to a semi-clandestine insurgent force bent on disrupting governance and daily life. U.S. plans to draw down its security forces in neighboring Syria are likely to embolden ISIS, which is far from being eliminated. In addition to the persistence of ISIS fighters, Shia militias that received training and equipment from Iran to fight the Islamic State remain strong; there is no indication that these groups are demobilizing or breaking their ties with their state sponsor.
Politically, Iraq also faces considerable challenges. In October of 2017, Kurds voted to secede from the country, requiring Iraqi security forces to engage Kurdish fighters briefly in the city of Kirkuk before standing down. Kurds continue, albeit tentatively, to remain part of Iraq. In May 2018, Iraqis went to the polls to elect a new parliament, which in turn chooses the president and prime minister. Less than half the population participated, and the Shias continued to dominate the political landscape, although this round brought Moqtada al-Sadr’s Sadrist party to power, an outspoken critic of the United States who has spent time in Iran.
Iraq also continues to struggle with national cohesion. Prior to the rise of ISIS, trust between Shias and Sunnis in the country was already low, and Sunnis exclusion from meaningful representation in the government helped create a disenfranchised population that was willing to consider ISIS rule, at least initially. While ISIS is no longer holding territory or governs parts of Iraq, the social scars remain from the three-year run of the Islamic State. A November 2018 report from the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq documents 202 mass graves in Iraq from the time of the Islamic State, with an estimated 6,000-12,000 victims, many of whom are Shia. These atrocities need to be dealt with in a way that breaks the cycle of violence and revenge. The Iraqi government, however, has committed reprisal attacks against known and suspected ISIS loyalists it has captured, and the Atlantic Monthly reports that the government has executed hundreds of fighters and their wives. These acts will mostly likely further fuel the cycle of hatred and revenge.
Clearly Iraq faces considerable challenges to its security, democracy, sovereignty and economy. As troubling as these developments are, opportunities to build the nation from these terrible events still exist. First, citizens of Mosul and other towns and cities in Iraq could come together to rebuild their homes and communities, and these reconstruction project could be an opportunity to teach reconciliation and create a symbol that transcends ethnic divides. International donors could work through the Iraqi government to provide grants to neighborhoods that have multi-ethnic committees, and that agree to work together to rebuild these neighborhoods. Ultimately, rebuilding cities, farmland, and infrastructure damaged by ISIS, and the civil war before it, could be an opportunity to rebuild national unity, if people are given ownership of the process and learn to work together for a common destiny.
In Afghanistan, things have not fared much better. The United States, under the banner of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, has continued a combat mission in the country, making it the United States’ single longer war, outpacing even the Vietnam conflict. The United States continues to fight both the Taliban, which the BBC reports is active in seventy percent of the country, and a variety of other insurgent groups, most notably ISIS in Khorasan, which has perpetrated some of bloodiest attacks in Afghanistan as well as in neighboring Pakistan. Put together, the Institute for Economics and Peace reports that these various insurgent forces perpetrated 4,653 fatalities in 2017 alone, making it the single deadliest country for terrorist attacks. In 2018, the United States began to negotiate directly with the Taliban, excluding the Afghan government, and while the content of these negotiations remains secret, the speculation is that these talks are aimed at creating conditions for a U.S. drawdown as well as for prisoner exchanges.
Afghanistan’s economy, hindered by the poor security situation, has also struggled to take off, despite the potential for agriculture, mining, textiles and other industries. The country remains the single largest producer of illicit opium, supplying an estimated ninety percent of the global market including ninety-five percent of European markets alone. A 2016 IMF assessment of the opium industry in Afghanistan estimates that it has created 400,000 jobs, more than the Afghan National Security Forces. In addition to being an illicit economy that undercuts rule of law, the government cannot collect taxes on this product, depriving it of a vital source of revenue that could, in turn, fund infrastructure and other development projects. Opium also helps finance the Taliban, giving it resources for its insurgency. Afghanistan also continues to rely heavily on foreign aid, compiling about fifty percent of Afghanistan’s total GDP. Finally, Afghanistan also struggles with widespread corruption. Transparency International’s 2017 Corruption Perception Index placed Afghanistan 177 out of 180 countries examined. A 2014 New York Times article argued that the situation has become so bad that “corruption can no longer be described as a cancer on the system: It is the system.”
Politically, Afghanistan has also struggled with establishing legitimate and effective governance. The country’s last presidential elections, in 2014, was the country’s first democratic handover of power from one leader, Hamid Karzai, who was no longer eligible to run, to a new leader, Ashraf Ghani. However, the elections had considerable irregularities and allegations of fraud. Parliamentary elections were originally scheduled for 2016 but, due to security concerns, were delayed until October 2018. Despite persisting insecurities, elections were held in October, with the Independent Election Commission reporting forty-five percent turn out, and women making up thirty-three percent of the vote. Afghanistan is scheduled to hold presidential elections again in 2019.
Regionally, Afghanistan also faces considerable challenges from neighboring powers. Russia, China, Iran, Pakistan and India, in addition to NATO countries, are all vying for influence or economic opportunities in Afghanistan, challenging the country’s sovereignty and further compromising stability and growth.
This bleak picture of insecurity and corruption begs the question what, if anything, can be done to stabilize Afghanistan and produce a better life for its citizens. In fact, beginning with the population is perhaps the best path forward. The Asia Foundation’s 2018 survey of the Afghan people found that, despite everything, the people continue to experience some improvements in their lives. The report cites the UN Development Program’s Human Development Index, which notes that the average life expectancy of Afghans and education levels have continued to climb since first being assessed in 2005, and average household income has increased, as has the number of women in the workplace. The Asia Foundation Survey further notes that favorable attitudes towards girls’ education is at an all-time high, with overall support at eighty-four percent. These improvements, while seemingly small, will likely pay dividends for Afghans in the future. Meanwhile, programs like the Afghan National Solidarity Program, which began in 2002, aims to empower the Afghan people through development projects. The NSP, which is run by the central government, provides grants to local committees that must decide how to use the funds, create development plans and provide a portion of labor to the projects. Programs like these not only provide infrastructure, like bridges and schools, but also teach decision making, leadership and consensus building, empowering local communities.
Despite considerable setbacks in Iraq and Afghanistan, a future that begins with the population and places them first will help stabilize both countries. Ultimately, Iraq and Afghanistan will flourish if the populations in these countries find a common future with each other and the government is able to win their trust and support.