Almost a year ago, in February 2016, Lise Grande, the United Nations’ humanitarian coordinator in Iraq, stated that “we know the Iraqi government has its back against the wall fiscally. In order to stabilize areas and to help displaced families go back, we’ve got to do more.” Since then, however, little effort has been made by Baghdad or its international partners to heed this warning, highlighting how daunting the task of national reconstruction will be after two years of conflict. With all eyes on the ongoing operation to expel the Islamic State from Mosul, Iraqi and international policymakers cannot ignore the fact that their war against the militants has wrought intense damage in cities across the country, and that liberation without reconstruction creates conditions for renewed instability.
To address these economic and political challenges, Iraq’s leaders will need to develop a strategy for restoring essential services and infrastructure to liberated populations. These efforts are necessary to allow for the return of displaced civilians; to create an environment in which vital reconciliation between aggrieved ethnic, sectarian, and religious communities can occur; and to foster governance reform and anti-corruption processes. The reconstruction of Iraq’s war-damaged institutions ultimately presents an opportunity to bolster the country’s existing civil society organizations, provide local populations the means to recover lost livelihoods, and foster new relationships between policymakers and their constituencies.
Baghdad’s efforts to devise a comprehensive reconstruction plan have so far been handicapped by mounting economic crisis and government bloat. The international community will need to support the Iraqi government to rebuild the country by empowering Iraqis to work for their communities. Small, local, and flexible non-governmental and civil society organizations are best-positioned to undertake this work; by employing networks of volunteers from affected communities, they can maneuver political or military sensitivities, monitor humanitarian developments at the grassroots level, and quickly target aid to populations in the greatest need. Moreover, by providing these local civil society organizations with funding, security, and equipment, Baghdad and its partners will be able to mobilize overstretched resources to promote a sense of ownership over the post-ISIS peace by offering alternative sources of income to the young, working-age population.
Levels of Destruction
The Iraqi government and their paramilitary allies’ fight to liberate ISIS-held areas has taken place primarily in urban and semi-urban environments, leading to particularly destructive combat. During the battle for Ramadi in Anbar Province, which was liberated in February 2016, over 80% of the city was destroyed. Since mid-2014, one out of every three structures there has been damaged, with 2,000 completely destroyed. According to UN and provincial assessments, all water, electricity, medical, and sewerage systems suffered moderate-to-severe damage, along with the city’s bridges, government buildings, schools, and hospitals. When ISIS militants retreated, they left behind a dense web of improvised explosive devices and booby traps. Aid organizations estimate that it will take decades to clear this ordnance.
Battles with ISIS, however, are not the only source of infrastructure damage. Destruction of civilian homes and local services has become a weapon of revenge for some non-state armed groups, including powerful Iran-backed units within the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), along with other Sunni tribal organizations. In Tikrit, for example, Human Rights Watch reported that fighters from Shia PMF units, including Kata’ib Hezbollah, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, and the Badr Organization, deliberately destroyed several hundred civilian buildings after ISIS’s withdrawal. In the villages of al-Dur and al-Alam, satellite imagery showed large swaths of liberated neighborhoods leveled by both Sunni tribal fighters and Shia armed groups; in al-Dur, local policeman reported that 600 homes had been torched or brought down with explosives.
The battle for Mosul, which is grinding slowly into its third month, could precipitate similar levels of destruction as those fought elsewhere in Iraq, particularly as fighting shifts into denser urban areas. By January 10 this year, the Iraqi military reported that 88% of the city’s newer eastern neighborhoods had been liberated, leaving ISIS fighters to consolidate their defensive positions across the Tigris in the older part of the city, where narrow streets and construction could hinder efforts to avoid undue damage to civilian homes, infrastructure, and besieged populations. Post-liberation planners must also map and fill in the latticework of tunnels underneath the city’s foundations, which ISIS fighters built to avoid airstrikes and move undetected.
Challenges to Reconstruction
The situation in Ramadi offers insight into the potentially astronomical costs to recover damaged areas after liberation. There, reconstruction efforts may require as much as $10 billion in emergency funding. Anbar’s deputy governor declared that the overall sum needed to reconstruct his province post-ISIS will be $22 billion, including work needed in other heavily contested areas like Fallujah. Over 250 miles north, Naif Saido Kassem, the mayor of al-Shemal sub-district in Sinjar, said last year that it would take $70 million to repair the damage in his jurisdiction, which includes economically important agricultural land. So far, the Iraqi government has only been able to provide al-Shemal with $45,000 to clear debris from roads. In Mosul, a city three times as large as Ramadi, reconstruction costs in the urban areas alone could rise into the tens of billions of dollars.
Gripped by ongoing financial crisis, the Iraqi government does not have the resources to confront this challenge alone. The precarious drop in global oil prices below $50 per barrel in mid-2015, down from over $100 per barrel a year earlier, seriously impacted the Iraqi economy. Profit from petroleum export constitutes 43% of the country’s GDP, 99% of its exports, 90% of its government revenue, and 80%of its foreign exchange earnings. By late 2015, oil’s market price was only half that needed for the Iraqi budget to break even. This year, the budget deficit is expected to be around $20 billion.
The oil crisis exacerbated deeper flaws in the Iraqi political economy. In August 2015, Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi enacted a series of reforms to reduce government waste. He sought to address reckless civil sector growth fueled by a general increase in oil prices since 2004-2005. Despite the 2008 global economic downturn, Iraq’s government had steadily expanded over the past seven years due to increased civil sector hiring (as well as the presence of “ghost employees” who receive paychecks, but do not actually exist). Between 2004 and 2015, the national budget increased by 500%. When the country experienced both ISIS’s rise and oil’s dropping price in 2014, Baghdad cut back new investments and scrambled to keep companies like Russia’s Lukoil, Royal Dutch Shell, and Italy’s ENI from moving their operations to more secure markets.
Today, the World Bank predicts that Iraq’s economy will grow at sustained 7.2% in 2017 and hover at around 5% from 2017-2020—mainly due to ramped-up oil production, structural reforms, and the implementation of a $5.34 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund to ensure debt sustainability. However, the volatile nature of the ISIS insurgency, the need to protect, shelter, and feed 3.5 million displaced civilians, and factional domestic politics could hinder this fragile recovery. Neither Baghdad nor Washington knows where to find the money to repair Iraq. In July 2016, United States Secretary of State John Kerry convened a conference that raised $2.1 billion in pledges—75% of which will go to “demining and stabilization efforts.” While a step in the right direction, such sums are far too little to restore an acceptable level of safety and essential services.
Identifying Effective Partners
Iraq and the international community will need not only to think about the “day after ISIS,” but also consider six months, one year, and one decade beyond. Confronting the physical destruction in the country and its people is a critical element of this planning. Given the tenuous financial situation, how can policymakers in Iraq and abroad begin to rebuild? The reconstruction process presents an opportunity to bolster the country’s existing civil society, empower local populations, and foster new relationships between policymakers and their constituencies. While large aid organizations have vital roles to play in this effort, the Iraqi government would be well-served by strengthening partnerships with small, local organizations that can respond much faster and more flexibly than their international counterparts.
These groups are better equipped to identify local needs within distinct communities, and respond through networks of volunteers with knowledge of on-the-ground realities. In many instances, these smaller organizations are able to distribute much-needed aid in areas that larger operations consider too dangerous. By working through, rather than in spite of, local patronage networks (tribal, familial, etc.), they operate much more efficiently, reducing the overall reconstruction cost. For example, the Education for Peace in Iraq Center partners with the Iraq Health Action Organization (IHAO), a small organization that shifts operations to meet needs across the country. In September 2016, it was able to reach displaced civilians at a checkpoint outside the town of Qayarrah only days after it was liberated. More recently, in Tikrit, the organization managed to work in areas that were under PMF control, employing local volunteers who had good relationships with the non-state armed groups.
Local populations are best equipped and motivated to rebuild their cities, and groups like IHAO can accurately target resources to populations in areas with greatest need. The Iraqi government could focus on providing security for these groups to operate, a mission the international community could both encourage and support. Baghdad can empower communities to work for a broader national goal and ensure much-needed services are delivered quickly and efficiently. Failure to support infrastructure development, clear IEDs, and rebuild homes could breed new resentment at perceived government neglect.
Matthew Schweitzer is a Researcher at the Education for Peace in Iraq Center in Washington, DC, and the editor of postwarwatch.com.