President Barack Obama has said that he wants to strike at the heart of Daesh by the end of the year. In a meeting with the Iraqi Prime Minister, Haider Al-Abadi, during the UN summit in New York, Obama stressed the need to push Daesh out of Mosul, which has been the de facto capital of the group since Iraqi security forces fled the city in June 2014 following the rapid advance of the extremists from Syria.
Previous efforts to re-take Mosul have been thwarted by the terrorist group but Obama is optimistic that this time coalition forces on the ground are in a much stronger position to progress rapidly, even though it will be a “tough fight”. Daesh has lost significant territory over the past year, Obama pointed out, and the coalition has been making steady progress by taking back half of the territory it once controlled.
The outgoing US president is acutely aware that military victory alone will not assure Daesh’s defeat; the success of the terrorist group has more to do with Iraq’s political failings and less to do with the country’s military weakness.
“It’s not enough to just drive [Daesh] out of Mosul,” insisted Obama, who appears to be desperate to see the terrorist group defeated before he leaves office. “We also have to ensure that it doesn’t come back and that extremist ideology born out of desperation does not return.”
While we can safely assume that the first part of Obama’s vision has a good chance of success even though there are sensitive issues around a coalition made up predominantly of Shia and Kurdish forces apparently rescuing Sunnis from a Sunni terrorist group, the second and most crucial aspect of his vision — to see conditions that favour democracy take root in Iraq — is less than guaranteed.
Iraq’s failure to address three of its most difficult challenges enabled Daesh to overrun the country. The combination of sectarian politics, loss of sovereignty and corruption has been its undoing in the post-US invasion era; it’s a problem that many will argue rightly was connected directly to the invasion itself.
For Obama’s vision to succeed, Iraq has to find a way to undo the legacy of the Bush era and reverse the colossal mistake made by the post-invasion Paul Bremer administration, which exacerbated the country’s sectarian divisions. The political framework Bremer installed was more characteristic of the confessional system of Lebanon and less like the democracy promised to Iraqis.
The results of governing Iraq as a country of three separate nations — Sunni, Shia and Kurds — have been calamitous. The sectarian politics of Nouri Al-Maliki’s government pushed Sunni Iraqis into the clutches of extremist groups like Daesh. As hard as it may be for us to imagine, any alternative to the corruption and sectarianism of Al-Maliki’s government seemed a better option to the people of Iraq; why should they stay as part of a union where they do not have a future?
This is a bleak reminder of the challenges facing Iraq on its road to becoming a stable country once more. With Obama’s eyes focused on defeating Daesh, it’s quite easy to underestimate the deep-rooted problems which allowed Iraq to become a fertile ground for extremist groups in the first place.
Despite Obama’s acclamation that Prime Minister Al-Abadi is committed to an inclusive Iraq where everybody is treated fairly and human rights are respected, the problems of sectarianism, the lack of sovereignty and prevalent corruption still loom large.
Al-Abadi has undertaken steps to reform the political system by abolishing the sectarian elements of his government — he has banned quota systems across all ministries, for example — but that will hardly convince millions of Iraqis that their country is on course to regain its sovereignty and return to non-sectarian politics. These are the deeper and, many would say, more challenging problems facing Iraq.
Daesh would not have been able to move as swiftly as it did across the country without the common perception that Iran had undue influence over the government in Baghdad, a perception that was no doubt reinforced by the pivotal role played by Tehran in influencing the new Iraqi government and its institutions at every level. Its explicit backing of Al-Maliki and other prominent figures no doubt hardened the image of the Iraqi government as just another puppet of the Iranian mullahs.
The unrestricted access granted to forces allied to Iran continues to damage Iraq’s ability to regain full sovereignty. Security observers are sceptical about the prospect of Iraq moving out of the clutches of Iran, especially now that a “Shia Liberation Army”, a sectarian force designed to export the ideology and fervour of Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1979 revolution, is operating in the region. According to some estimates, there are now up to 100,000 Iran-backed Shia fighters in Iraq.
Will the Sunni tribal leaders, who were instrumental in eradicating Al-Qaeda from Iraq, now trust the Baghdad government not to turn these foreign forces against them? Iraq’s very future relies on this trust.
Corruption is another factor in Iraq’s undoing. According to the UK-based International Centre for Development Studies, $120 billion simply disappeared during the term of office of former Prime Minister Al-Maliki.
The country has made efforts to tackle the problem but it is so pervasive that one of Iraq’s anti-corruption leaders, Mishan Al-Jabouri, complained that there is no solution. “Everybody is corrupt, from the top of society to the bottom, everyone, including me.”
Iraq, according to Al-Jabouri, has suffered from a “thirteen-year pillage” of the treasury. Echoing the concern raised by the former Deputy President Ayad Allawi, who described the problem of corruption as an “existential threat”, he added sensationally that corruption is more destabilising to the country than the threat posed by Daesh.
The offensive against the Daesh stronghold in Mosul is a necessary step for Iraq to become a stable country once more. Equally crucial for Iraq to become one of the more progressive states in the region, though, is for it to regain complete sovereignty by putting national interests and the interests of its people ahead of any regional sectarian goals. It is also vital to end the endemic corruption that has denied the Iraqi people the opportunity to live a life of security, happiness and greater prosperity.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.