The United States and its international partners are making progress against the so-called Islamic State, also known as ISIS or Da’esh in Iraq. Iraqi forces backed by United States have expelled ISIS from eastern Mosul, but the fight for control over the rest of the city, including the densely populated old city, continues.
The military fight is only the beginning of the long process of recovery, reconciliation, and reconstruction that must take place to ensure that the removal of ISIS is not followed by the emergence of a similarly threatening and destructive successor group. Mosul and its surrounding areas have not only endured years of brutal rule by ISIS, but also years of war and decades of dictatorial rule. There is no easy way to rebuild after all that trauma and destruction, but it must be done.
The magnitude of the challenge is all the greater by the fact that the Trump Administration is intent on pulling back from U.S. international engagements and obligations.
President Trump has made the fight against terrorism a priority of his administration, vowing to destroy what he terms “radical Islamic terror” in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere around the globe. But there have been few indications to date from the Trump Administration about what its anti-ISIS and broader Middle East strategy might be. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is preparing to convene the 68-nation anti-ISIS coalition in Washington on March 22, and the multilateral meeting should be an opportunity to achieve more clarity.
It will be instructive to see whether the Trump Administration will table any proposals regarding the enormous and essential task of stabilization and reconstruction after removing ISIS from Iraq and Syria.
The battle for Mosul has had massive humanitarian impact. Over 200,000 people have been displaced from their homes to escape the fighting, and are housed in U.N. funded camps. Up to 400,000 could be displaced in the coming weeks as the fighting continues. Meanwhile, the Trump Administration has proposed a budget that seeks to gut U.N. humanitarian programs benefitting these and other war-torn populations.
International efforts to hold ISIS accountable for war crimes and crimes against humanity, supported by the United States at the United Nations in New York, will similarly require resources.
These vital steps require consent from the Iraqi government, which is unlikely to be forthcoming unless it is confident that the necessary international resources to support these initiatives will be available. There is little alternative to the United States taking the lead in raising these funds, not least because the United States is still regarded as bearing responsibility for the conflict and instability that has racked Iraq since the removal of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
So here is the contradiction between the Trump Administration’s stated priority to destroy ISIS completely and its stated intention to withdraw vital support from a wide range of essential U.N. humanitarian agencies. The United States cannot and should not undertake the massive, long-term task of stabilizing and reconstructing areas liberated from ISIS in Iraq, and eventually Syria, alone.
In order to both destroy ISIS on the ground and ensure that the conditions that led to its emergence do not remain in place, the United States must look beyond the immediate military battle for Mosul and Raqqa and prepare for the post-conflict reconstruction period. The major humanitarian agencies run through the United Nations are absolutely essential to that effort. Sadly, however, the funding cuts proposed by the Trump Administration would drastically reduce the capacity of these agencies, thereby undermining the administration’s counter-ISIS plans and imperiling any gains made on the battlefield.