Photo: Nineveh Plains Protection Units, in training. By Staff Sgt. Sergio Rangel.
Every year since 2011, I interview Joel Wing, discussing developments in Iraq in the year ahead. To Iraq watchers, Joel is one of the most prolific writers and analysts of the country, frequently covering issues in multiple sectors in Iraq. Many will be familiar with his blog, Musings on Iraq, which is increasingly serving as an oral historical record, hosting regular interviews with experts and people who have worked in Iraq between 2003 and the present day. For this interview, we look at some of the challenges Iraq is trying to grapple with over 18 months after the last major combat operations against the self-declared "Islamic State," or Daesh:
IIC: In the middle of last year, there was a lot of optimism about where Iraq was heading. Oil revenues were surging again to $7.9 bn for September 2018, and had they continued rising, would have eclipsed the sums needed to rebuild Mosul. In the ensuing months, the 2019 budget was finalised, and we seem to be back to the old days: almost everything is spent on salaries and a vast amount of that is security related. The interesting thing is that this was not the largest budget Iraq has had-- that was 2012, when monthly revenues peaked $8.7 bn. And yet, cities like Basra languished. What's the big problem here?
JW: The Iraqi budget has always been about enriching the ruling parties and maintaining their patronage networks rather than developing the country. Most of the 2019 budget was drafted by the Abadi government and just amended by the new Mahdi administration. It shows the priorities are to maintain the status quo rather than develop the country or rebuild the areas like Mosul devastated by the war with the Islamic State. Most of the money goes to operational costs like salaries and pensions and includes hiring thousands of more workers and taking back the members of the Iraqi security forces that fled in 2014 after Mosul fell. Lip service is given to things like diversifying the economy, and not enough is allocated to war ravaged provinces.
For a number of reasons from lack of qualified staff, regulations, poor contracting, etc the Iraqi ministries have been very poor at spending their capital budgets which are aimed at development. Much of that money never gets spent and is simply rolled over to the next fiscal year. That begs the question that if more money was given to reconstruction could it effectively be spent?
One of the positives is that more money has been given to the Electricity Ministry. That’s because every year there are protests over power shortages, and that exploded in Basra last year with the looting and burning of government offices. The Ministry wants to focus upon short term power output to try to fend off another series of riots in 2019 which could bring down the government.
This poses a problem. Is the ministry forsaking long term electricity plans for short term political gain? Meaning will these plans like installing small generators fit in with strategic goals of fixing the country’s national grid, and could they end up costing lots of money that might be better spent on other projects that would pay off down the road? Meeting immediate demand and perhaps saving the government are obviously the main concerns.
In the years after 2003, there was a debate on where the primary line of effort should be for the Coalition in terms of rebuilding Iraq. In those days, most people agreed nothing could really be achieved without security. So we saw the emergence of "clear, hold, build" counterinsurgency. Where would you say the main line of effort should be now, for the international community?
JW: There should be three goals of international aid to Iraq.
The first should be training and equipping the Iraqi security forces. The Islamic State is still around and rebuilding in central Iraq with little push back from the government. It will never likely be able to seize a major Iraqi city again, but it could undermine the government and sow chaos with large terrorist attacks once more, and that could happen sooner rather than later given its current trajectory. The Iraqi forces need training on counterinsurgency, their logistics are still very poor, and their intelligence sharing is near non-existent. This is all outlined in a recent U.S. inspector general’s report which stated that the Iraqi forces suffer from institutional shortcomings that hinder it as an effective force. It will take years to try to overcome these problems so the U.S. and its allies need to be thinking long term.
The second goal should be rebuilding the destroyed areas of the country. There was a donor conference in Kuwait for that purpose, but Baghdad turned it into a joint reconstruction-investment conference for general economic development. Rebuilding has been very inconsistent across the country and most of it has been done by the United Nations and the local and provincial governments. Foreign countries should help the Mahdi government form a strategic plan for reconstruction. The dilemma as stated before is that the Iraqi ministries are bad at spending their money on such endeavors. That means it may be years until places like Mosul may be rebuilt and it’s even worse in rural areas like Sinjar.
Third, foreign governments and institutions need to continue to push Baghdad to diversify its economy. This has been a goal since 2003. The Iraqis always say they want to move away from an oil based economy and want to develop the private sector, but it spends more time talking about it and going to meetings on it than actually taking substantive action. That’s because oil offers billions of dollars each year, and makes the elite independent of the public because they don’t rely upon them for financing via taxes. There is no reason for the political parties to give this system up. That doesn’t mean this effort should be ended however, but it is a sisyphean task.
There's been some interesting debate recently regarding conditionality in support for Western allies, for both military and civilian aid. In Walter Ladwig's book Patron Client Relations in Counterinsurgency, he makes a convincing case that failure to pressure Saigon into reforming hastened America's slide into the Vietnam quagmire, while intermittent use of pressure in El Salvador led to more violence. Should the international community put more pressure on the Iraqi government to restore services, or will they simply look to China and Russia for support?
JW: Professor James Savage in Reconstructing Iraq’s Budgetary Institutions found that the only effective way foreign governments can get other countries to change is if they buy into the process. For example, the Coalition Provisional Authority got the Iraqis to adopt a new budgetary drafting system, which is still in use today because they wanted a budget passed each year, and it was required by international organizations like the IMF and World Bank to get loans from them.
Other things like adopting a modern computer system to run the ministries was rejected because the Iraqis were so used to the paper system used for decades and they’d been cut off from modern technology for a decade by sanctions they saw no reason to change. Despite millions spent by the Americans and countless hours used to train Iraqis, the effort completely failed.
Similarly the Surge set all kinds of legislative benchmarks for the Iraqi government but really only those the Iraqis thought would help them got passed such as a provincial election law for 2009 and a new deBaathification law, the Accountability and Justice bill because it would still allow the authorities to ban people for their pasts just with new rules. Other things such as a new hydrocarbons law went nowhere because the compromises that were necessary for that to work with the Kurds weren’t seen as benefiting Baghdad.
That means the international community can set conditions for further aid, but what it can accomplish is again limited by Iraqi politics and norms.
How long can the current status quo continue in Iraq before another major crisis, perhaps something worse than we have seen over the summer?
JW: I’ve been reading a lot of Iraqi history and one thing some scholars bring up was that an expanding educated class of young people posed an existential threat to the political system. In the past you had more and more people graduating from school yet limited opportunities in an oil based economy dominated by government jobs and little say in politics which was dominated by a few elite. The result was the overthrow of the monarchy in 1958 and the beginning of a series of military governments, which culminated in the Baath coming to power.
Those same circumstances exist today. A major difference is that young people now have more opportunities to get up and leave Iraq for Europe or America or Asia if they feel frustrated. That might be a safety valve, but as the 2018 summer riots show in Basra more and more people are once again getting fed up with the things as they are with limited jobs, limited electricity and other services, the same elite staying in power after every election, and widespread corruption. That exploded in a wave of violence that caught many by surprise. The question is can these protests bring about institutional change in Iraq or just shuffle the people at the top?
The later has happened three times now with little positive results. First, Maliki replaced Jaafari, and turned into an autocrat in his second term. Abadi was supposed to be the anti-Maliki, but was a Dawa stalwart and used to be a spokesman for Maliki. He talked more about reforms than accomplished them. Mahdi was put into office because the Basra protests doomed Abadi’s second term. Mahdi has been named as a PM candidate since 2005 and noted himself that he could probably do little because the elite refuse change.
I’ve always thought Iraq won’t really go through any systemic adjustments until the current generation of Iraqi elite passes away and are replaced by a younger group of politicians who will hopefully have a new outlook on how things should be run.
It's hard to argue that the war on I.S. did not unify Iraqis, not only from the main ethno-sectarian groups (which was always an over-simplified division) but also among many political parties. Even when Abadi came under sharp criticism or ministers were questioned in parliament, a general sense of national unity prevailed on key issues, such as Coalition bases, albeit with some exceptions. Can this hold out, now that I.S. are a very diminished force?
JW: The latest polling shows that Arab Iraqis at least do not think sectarianism is such an issue anymore and they are more concerned about getting their fair share of services. It would seem natural with security not a big issue right now that the public would turn to other issues such as electricity, water, good governance and corruption, which have been brewing for years with annual protests.
Many Sunni politicians also want to cooperate with Baghdad because it sees that as the only way to get money to rebuild areas destroyed by IS, and jobs and patronage to stay in power. Parties and politicians that wanted to be more confrontational with the central government like the Nujafis did poorly in the last election.
At the same time some old divisions still exist. After the Kurdish referendum the divide between Arab and Kurdish Iraqis was exposed once again. The 2019 budget however includes paying the Peshmerga and continued allocations to the KRG even if it doesn't meet its oil export quotas which are both positive and show some fencing mending going on.
The Shiite parties still want to dominate the bureaucracy and the discourse in Iraq however. For example, when Abadi was about to step down it was reported that he appointed dozens of Dawa members to mid level positions throughout the government such as director generals to make sure they would be embedded into the ministries. This was the same policy that Maliki followed. Ultimately, the end of the IS threat may be the biggest threat to the political establishment because the people will just focus upon the government’s substandard performance.