With the assault on Mosul underway, the Islamic State’s (ISIL) territorial demise in Iraq is all but certain. Yet, as many experts focus on future attacks abroad, a key lesson from the war in Afghanistan has been forgotten. The United States all but destroyed the Taliban and Al-Qaeda by 2003, but more than a decade of ineffective governance contributed to the resurgence of these groups. Afghanistan shows that there is more to ending a conflict than just bullets and bombs.
To defeat ISIL and prevent other terrorist groups from taking hold in Iraq, the United States must refocus resources on the political and social problems that led to the rise of ISIL. Like ISIL, the Taliban rose because of internal chaos and disenfranchising politics. Political infighting after the Soviet withdrawal thwarted local attempts to govern. In contrast with the chaos that preceded it, the Taliban provided strict but stabilizing law and order.
The U.S. and NATO failed to provide the same stability and order after the military intervention in 2001. After the U.S. invasion, Afghan communities became increasingly disillusioned with the government. Political and financial corruption prevented the U.S.-supported government from providing the order and stability many Afghans craved. As a result, international forces have suffered immense setbacks over the last decade. The Taliban now controls as much territory as they did before the U.S. effort in 2001. Even ISIL has made some inroads into Afghanistan.
Policymakers should learn from the Taliban’s resurgence as it prepares for a post-ISIL Iraq. Western Iraq, which is predominantly Sunni, was stripped of political and social influence following the U.S. invasion. Many Iraqis lost faith in their government as basic services declined and corruption worsened. The political rise of the Shia, a sect formerly marginalized by Saddam Hussein’s regime, frightened many of the Sunnis in Iraq.
ISIL, before inspiring or carrying out attacks abroad, was mainly focused on western Iraq and Syria. Unlike the pre-2001 Al-Qaeda, ISIL tried to garner local support by providing basic services, stability, effective policing, and some economic incentives. Many of the communities that pledged allegiance to ISIL had serious ideological differences with the organization, but distrusted the central government more.
Iraq’s current government has attempted to be more inclusive and root out corruption, but the sectarian and politically chaotic environment has hindered most efforts. Protests against corruption and the failures of basic services have increased in magnitude and frequency over the last few months, with much ire directed at political quotas. These quotas, which guarantee political representation to a set number of Sunnis, Shia, and Kurds, are seen as enabling corruption. Political positions are determined by ethnic or religious ties and not by qualifications.
With Mosul’s fall almost inevitable, now is the time to start addressing local grievances. Many Iraqis need basic necessities like food, clean water, and education. Many more are returning to destroyed homes and businesses. The United States needs to commit the same amount of resources, if not more, to the rebuilding and care for the millions affected by the war.
After the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, the United States abandoned the country to rebuild itself after decades of war. The following political chaos, social instability, and economic hardships led to the rise of the Taliban. The United States has already spent over $2 trillion in Iraq since 2003 and the cost to deploy troops in the region has been increasing over the last decade to over $2.1 million per soldier. ISIL demonstrated how one small group can grow and threaten the security of millions across the globe, and abandoning or meagerly helping western Iraq could replicate the condition that created ISIL in the first place.
The United States probably does not have the influence to force an overhaul of Iraq’s current political system, but the United States can still push for smaller political changes, such as enhancing the power of anti-corruption agencies. The United States should also shift resources to providing medical care, food, water, education, and basic services to the Iraqi people. Rebuilding western Iraq through local initiatives will empower previously disaffected communities and help them not only rebuild their physical environment, but also rebuild years of mistrust and animosity towards the central government and other sectarian groups in Iraq.
The chaos in Iraq and Afghanistan has given shelter and fuel to extremist groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIL. The current strategy of the United States and the international coalition focuses on the short-term fight against these groups and not on addressing the systemic issues that allow the groups to take root and grow. Successfully involving marginalized communities and rooting out corruption in Iraq would lessen support for militant groups, increase local support for the government, and avoid a resurgence similar to the one by the Taliban in Afghanistan. In order to pacify and stabilize Iraq, the United States must shift its focus from just bombs and bullets to building, bandages, and books.
Jacob Kennedy is pursuing his M.A. in Middle East Studies at George Washington University. He holds two Bachelor of Arts degrees in International Affairs and Economics from Marquette University in Wisconsin. He currently works in the Department of Justice and has previously interned in the Policy Planning Office of the Department of State.