Three years ago, I was visiting Iraq as the self-declared Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) was advancing fast in territories to the north and west of Baghdad, after a stunning capture of the country’s second major city, Mosul, where I spent my college years as a young man from central Iraq. The mood was somber and fear was detected everywhere: in the voices of people, in the media, on the streets, and even in the air. The closer people lived to the front-lines, the more fearful they were. Internally Displaced People (IDPs) were storming my hometown, Najaf, and the rest of the Middle Euphrates areas to the south of Baghdad. One man I met was firm in his belief that this war was going to be won: Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the highest Iraqi religious authority. He had just issued an historic fatwa calling on Iraqis to “ to defend the country, its people, the honor of its citizens, and its sacred places.” His fatwa was heeded by tens of thousands, who volunteered to fill the gaps in Iraq’s military unites, whose soldiers either were there on paper only, or just disappeared from their foxholes.
For the next three years, Iraqis accepted the challenge against all the odds of the pernicious Middle Eastern security environment, with porous borders, some by the lack of stability in Syria, while others were made porous by design of nefarious policies by neighboring countries, and finally declared victory on 10 July 2017. Some international help was provided along the way, which was valuable for the mission of Iraqi combatants, who did all the ground fighting. The cost of the war was tremendous, both in lives and military expenditure. The Iraqi Government estimated the damage and the cost military operations at 35 billion US dollars, not to mention the damage to Iraq’s heritage and lives lost, where no price tag can be issued.
The difference on the ground in three years cannot be missed. Iraqis, who experienced a near total collapse of morale in mid-2014, are more confident today that they can independently fight to protect their country and they have the international recognition of their valor and support of their just cause. Their victory over ISIS is a feat not for themselves alone, because ISIS is a threat to the world. Iraqis also emerge from this fight with security forces among the most experienced and best real-combat-trained. This experience will guarantee Iraq’s future security and can also be shared with the security forces in other nations that need help and support. Furthermore, having been vilified by many reckless Iraqi politicians hailing from the ISIS-captured territories and some Arab media, especially in the Gulf Arab States, Iraqi security forces have reclaimed now their identity as a national institution. They have conducted themselves very well in battle-field and gave many casualties in many battles that would not be offered if not for the extra care they took to minimize loss in civilian lives.
This victory, however, is not the end of the story of terrorism in Iraq, nor is it the end of nefarious regional behavior to undermine the stability of Iraq. It can be reversed if Iraqi government and all social leaders fail to take every measure to sustain the hard gains. The Iraqi government, and all Iraq’s allies, must make painful changes in the future policies. Internally, Iraqi government must recognize that all of the grief of the past three years, indeed the past fourteen years, has been the result of its corruption and wrongheaded policies. Average Iraqis are paying, and have paid all along for the self-interested and corrupt policies of this government and those of all past governments. Enough is enough. Iraqi politicians must develop a sense of decency that matches some of the sacrifices, patience, and patriotism of their constituents. They can’t hide behind crises and continue their bad behavior that gave us one security catastrophe after another and one governance failure after another.
The next steps must proceed under a new philosophy and new standards of performance. Holding bad actors accountable is a great start. Many of the rabble-rousers, who abandoned their communities after the ISIS debacle and took temporary residence in neighboring countries are already preparing to return to the Iraqi political theater, not because they repented and want to redeem themselves, but to have another round of looting as they see many billions of US dollars are coming to the reconstruction of the areas they helped destroy. They must not be rewarded for their follies and, in the case of many, unpatriotic support for ISIS. There is no better way to honor the memory of ISIS victims and Iraq’s fallen heroes than to clean the Iraqi house of corruption, incompetence, and bad governance. Iraqis gave a world-class example of a people who stoically supported their country and they deserve a decent government, good governance, and good living conditions that match their country’s abundant natural and human resources. Mismanagement must no longer be tolerated.
Finally, we must be mindful that this declaration was made on a symbolic occasion, the capture of the place where ISIS declared its so-called caliphate, and there are several towns still in the hands of ISIS. The battle is not over. As I have written here before, Iraq needs a post-liberation effort that is not less important, or less challenging, than the efforts spent thus far. Even the cities that have been liberated are still in great need of reconstruction, social rehabilitation, and a tremendous effort to treat the post-ISIS trauma and reverse the ideological propensities for terrorism among those who were radicalized by ISIS in the past years, especially the captive audience and vulnerable groups, including children and impressionable youth. We must not allow the music of victory to fool us into thinking that we already won decisively. We still have a lot of work in all fronts.
Abbas Kadhim is a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute, School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), Johns Hopkins University (Twitter: @DrAbbasKadhim) .