As Iraqi and Iraqi Kurdish forces close in on Mosul, the realization is dawning on policymakers in the United States and abroad that Mosul’s liberation really is only the end of the beginning rather than the beginning of the end. There appears no international plan, for example, to go after those who seem to have profiteered off Islamic State oil. (Leaked emails appear to show the involvement of Turkey’s energy minister who also happens to be President Erdoğan’s son-in-law, for example).

The biggest question mark, however, looms over the question of post-liberation governance. Brett McGurk, President Obama’s special envoy to the global coalition to defeat the Islamic State, has said that the problem is less lack of a plan and instead the presence of too many. “If we try to resolve everything before Mosul,” he remarked, “Daesh [the Islamic State] will never get out of Mosul.”

To kick-the-can down the road on the matter of post-conflict governance does neither Iraq nor regional security any favors. It is especially ironic that the Obama administration would defer the governance question, given how vociferously it criticized the Bush administration for the inadequacy of its plans prior to the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

At the very least, there should be some guiding principles if post-liberation governance is going to work:

  • Internal borders should not change. In 2003, Kurdish peshmerga looted portions of Mosul and its environs, sparking great resentment among both local Kurds and Arabs. The Kurdistan Democratic Party would like to occupy portions of Mosul, which traditionally have had large Kurdish populations. Many of the Kurds in Mosul, however, resent the Barzani tribe and have traditionally opposed it. To force the subordination of local Kurds to their political rivals in the naïve belief that ethnicity alone determines politics would be to set the stage for further unrest and bloodshed.
  • Those Iraqis who lobby in Washington, London, Riyadh, Amman, Ankara or, in other contexts, Tehran about provisional governance will never gain legitimacy or contribute to a working national compact. The first question congressmen should ask when would-be Iraqi politicians seek a meeting is why they aren’t making their case in Baghdad. The Iraqi government in Baghdad is less sectarian and more dynamic than its caricature. Nor are Iraqi Shi‘ites monolithic. There is recognition in Baghdad that they cannot simply return to the pre-Islamic State order. Sunni leaders in Mosul who fled and left residents to their fate have no legitimacy in the city nor do those who cast their lot with the Islamic State, even if they were never true believers. Tribal leaders and urban notables, however, have been regular visitors to Baghdad to meet with parliamentarians and the prime minister. Just because American diplomats cloister themselves behind the embassy’s blast walls and do not attend such meetings does not mean they do not occur.
  • A provisional council for a couple months charged primarily with organizing special elections to select new representatives might expedite the return of legitimate local representatives to Baghdad and to local governing bodies. Trauma can lead to healing. Moslawis have a rare second chance; they may recognize that their future is better working with Baghdad than rejecting it. Diplomats should encourage this conclusion rather than repeat the mistake of General David Petraeus, who essentially incentivized resistance against Iraqi national institutions. (The surge may have been a positive military strategy, but it was set Iraqi on the path toward political conflict).
  • To revise the constitution is not an easy process. For every Sunni leader who believes they can win sectarian advantage, there is a populist Shi‘ite leader who might seize the opportunity to do the same. That said, there is wiggle-room in the interpretation of the constitution without actually changing it. The biggest mistake the U.S. made as it worked to reshape Iraqi governance was not to embrace administrative federalism. Financial responsibility can still be devolve down to local authorities, either at the district or sub-district level. Some local authorities might embezzle the money, whereas others might prove themselves able representatives of the people. The important thing here is that, whether good or bad, the local representatives will be local and known to the residents of the city.

From a broader perspective, the U.S. Embassy and the next administration should listen to the Iraqis as they debate and discuss their own reforms. As the brilliant young scholar Hamzeh Hadad noted in a dissertation since published in English and Arabic by the Bayan Center for Planning and Studies, “despite being new to the democratic process, the Iraqi people have fought for democracy and accepted democracy as the legitimate form of rule, demonstrating their dissatisfaction through freedom of speech and holding politicians accountable via the ballot box.” While rebuilding after the fight against the Islamic State will be difficult—even without the war, the decline in oil prices imperiled Iraq’s economy—there is greater space now in Iraqi minds for active U.S. participation in Iraq than perhaps every before. Again, Hadad notes, correctly I think:

There will be less domestic pressure to pull out when ISIL is defeated, because all boots on the ground in the fight against ISIL so far have been Iraqis. There will not be war fatigue domestically as was the case before with the Coalition of the Willing. The coalition needs to maintain training of Iraqi troops and advising with the rebuilding of cities. Democratic allies will need to adopt the Iraqi schedule of democratization and adopt commitments to adhere to the need for Iraq to achieve full democracy.

What can the United States do post-Mosul? Simply committing itself to engaging Iraqis in the long-term as allies would be a good place to start. Iraq can be as positive an influence on regional security as it has been a negative factor since the unilateral U.S. withdrawal. Washington should use Mosul’s rebuilding as an opportunity to rebuild more than just the city.

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