April 14, 2016 | Interviewed by The Cipher Brief

A Dire Situation in Iraq

With Iraq’s political crisis worsening as chaos erupted in parliament on Wednesday over Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi plan to reshuffle his cabinet and combat corruption, The Cipher Brief sat down with John Hannah, a senior counselor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and former national security advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney to discuss the country’s political future, the threat of ISIS, and what lies ahead in the reconstruction and stabilization process.

The Cipher Brief: How would you assess Iraq’s current political crisis? What are the main concerns the U.S. should have when looking at what’s happening in the government?

John Hannah: It is a mess. And there’s no question it probably couldn’t have come at a worse time as America prepares for this battle to try and take back ISIS’s most important stronghold; the city of Mosul in northern Iraq. You don’t need a political crisis put on top of this enormous military challenge that we face. And Iraq, of course, is our key partner in that challenge. So the fact that their government looks like it’s falling apart in the middle of this very important military campaign is a serious problem for the United States.

It’s a problem that we’ve seen coming for a long time. There’s been a lot of discontent and activity on the streets of Baghdad; there’s been popular movements calling for much more effective government, much more effective delivery of services, and much less corruption in the government — the people have been demanding changes. The top religious leaders in Iraq wanted change, called for change, asked the government to respond to the people, and was prepared to back Prime Minister Abadi.  But Abadi has faced enormous resistance, primarily from within his own Shia bloc, for saying he was going to get rid of this sectarian government, where the only criteria for people to get a top job in the government is that they happen to have been born a particular religious sect. And at the urging of the religious leadership and at the urging of the people, Abadi said, we’re going to try and get a technocratic government that’s outside of politics and capable of doing the job and delivering on the people’s demands. And he hasn’t even been able to do that because almost all of the political parties—and it’s not only Shiites, it’s Sunni elite in government, it’s Kurdish elite in government—have all said, no, you can’t do that. I don’t think Abadi has gotten sufficient political support, particularly from the major outside players who have influence in Iraq, including the United States.

It was only last week that Secretary of State John Kerry decided to show up in Iraq for the first time in two years. I don’t know whether President Obama has ever spoken to Abadi about how he’s going to manage this political crisis. I don’t think any of the top leadership of the United States was talking to other political leaders in Iraq to try and help Abadi. So I think whatever intervention there was last week by Secretary Kerry to indicate that we stand in solidarity with Prime Minister Abadi to see these reforms made and to see this Iraqi government survive, that it was like so much of what the United States has done recently in Iraq: a day late and a dollar short.

In terms of what the causes are, I think a lot of it is just power politics inside of Iraq—political parties unable to see beyond their own interests. Rife with corruption, the political parties are basically able to get at the public trough and feed off of it. They have been doing so for years and are totally unresponsive to the people. That’s a major problem. There is a sectarian element to it. But at the end of the day, I think it is primarily about power and people who don’t want to give up their positions of power. To try and get, for the first time in a long time, some kind of effective government in Iraq that will actually give you the kind of political stability you need to run a country and win a war, that kind of far-sighted political vision in Iraq is sorely missing. The Iraqis need a lot of outside help to get them to that point. And I just don’t see that kind of support in the international community right now.

TCB: What does this mean for the fight against ISIS? How much is this political instability hurting the effort to go to Mosul and take things further?

JH: It is huge. For the Iraqi forces to have their government in Baghdad basically disintegrating, their chain of command looking like it’s falling apart in Baghdad while they’re being put up to this enormous challenge in Mosul, I think that kind of instability is just bad and undermines morale, which is already problematic at least in the regular Iraqi army. But in the longer term, everybody knows that even if we wipe out ISIS in Mosul, unless you’ve got some kind of political plan for the day after that finally begins to bring together some kind of inclusive formula in which all Iraq’s communities are adequately represented in the government, where everybody—Sunni, Shiite, and Kurds—really feel like they have a stake in the success of this country, you’re not going to get anywhere, and the military stuff won’t matter at all.

So the politics of this are critical, certainly in terms of the short term fight for Mosul, but most importantly, for the long term future of Iraq. We’ve got to get some kind of functional government in Baghdad that represents all of the Iraqi people. And it looks like we’re farther away from that now than we were almost two years ago when this fight began.

TCB: Speaking of the ‘day after,’ what would you say should be the highest priorities for reconstruction and stabilizing the region? There’s been a lot of talk about issues with internally displaced people and the problems inherent with the Iraqis who have left because of ISIS. Now that certain parts have been liberated, there’s sectarian tensions and questions about whether there will be retribution. How should the government in Baghdad, as well as the international community, structure their thinking on rebuilding and stabilizing the region as forces get pushed out?

JH: Well, certainly, hopefully, people now are putting together a serious plan to do that. I think we’re doing it in stages, because there are towns and cities that have been liberated in stages. We’ve seen some very bad things happen — we’ve seen a lot of retribution and destruction happen after towns have been liberated, with Shiite militias backed by Iran imposing all kinds of revenge on the Sunni inhabitants of those towns and cities that they deem were somehow collaborators with ISIS. But just in terms of sheer economic destruction, the city of Ramadi was absolutely devastated afterwards. It’s not at all clear when it can be a fully functioning, normal city again that takes back all of the hundreds of thousands of inhabitants that once lived there. So not only do you have a massive reconstruction job in these towns and cities, you need an economic plan going forward that will actually provide for some kind of standard of living for these people.  But what do you do with these internally displaced people who either can’t go back because their houses and towns don’t exist anymore and have been destroyed in the war, or because they’re afraid to go back and think they’ll pay a price, and they’ve got to be resettled somewhere else? So this is a massive job.

Even if the Iraqi government did have the money—which it doesn’t have, it’s almost broke and could well be broke by the end of this year—they wouldn’t be capable of doing the job just from a pure, functional perspective. They don’t have the capabilities, they don’t have the skills, I don’t think they have the vision to get the money to the places it needs to go to do this kind of rebuilding. So I think there’s also going to have to be a massive international effort. Hopefully, a lot of that money and effort will come from wealthier nations in places like Europe and Asia, and from some international organizations that haven’t had to carry the burden of the actual war itself.

But there’s no doubt that the United States, given its own interest and responsibility for the entire Iraqi theater and for this war, and given our position in the international order, that we’re going to have to lead that effort as well. Because if you don’t do that on the day after — not only get the military fight right, but get the politics and the economics right—you’re just going to be doing the same thing over, and over, and over again, and all kinds of bad things will continue to emanate out of that region toward Europe and toward the United States. It’s something we most definitely have to be on top of before this war is over.