Iraq After ISIS: The Other Half of Victory

Dealing with the Civil Dimension

By Anthony H. Cordesman

The United States, its allies, and international organizations are just beginning to come to grips with the civil dimensions of "failed state" wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, the Sudans, Syria, and Yemen. In each case, it is clear that the civil dimension of the war will ultimately be as important as the military one.

Any meaningful form of "victory" requires far more than defeating the current extremist threat in military terms, and reaching some temporary compromise between the major factions that divide the country. The current insurgent and other security threats exist largely because of the deep divisions within the state, the past and current failures of the government to deal with such internal divisions, and the chronic failure to meet the economic, security, and social needs of much of the nation's population.

In practical terms, these failures make a given host government, other contending factions, and competing outside powers as much of a threat to each nation’s stability and future as Islamic extremists and other hostile forces. Regardless of the scale of any defeat of extremists, the other internal tensions and divisions with each country also threaten to make any such “victory” a prelude to new forms of civil war, and/or an enduring failure to cope with security, stability, recovery, and development.

Any real form of victory requires a different approach to stability operations and civil-military affairs. In each case, the country the U.S. is seeking to aid failed to make the necessary economic progress and reforms to meet the needs of its people – and sharply growing population – long before the fighting began. The growth of these problems over a period of decades helped trigger the sectarian, ethnic, and other divisions that made such states vulnerable to extremism and civil conflict, and made it impossible for the government to respond effectively to crises and wars.

These issues are analyzed in depth in a new study by the Burke Chair at CSIS entitled Iraqi After ISIS: The Other Half of Victory, which is available on the CSIS web site at It is being circulated in working draft form in order to seek comments, directions and additional data, which should be sent to Anthony H. Cordesman at

The study shows that the economy and infrastructure of Iraq and the other countries involved in "failed state" wars have now been further crippled by years of war. As a result, each conflict has changed the country to the point where it creates a need to establish a new structure of governance and economy that reflects major shifts in the population, the balance of power in each state, and its real-world post-conflict opportunities for development.

The cumulative result is to make "stability operations" a key part of grand strategy. Defeating a given mix of terrorists or insurgents requires aid and assistance efforts that look beyond the fighting and the short-term priorities of conflict termination. Negotiations and new political arrangements, emergency humanitarian aid, and recovery aid are all critical steps towards lasting stability.

But , far broader reform is necessary. Lasting conflict resolution and/or an end to violent extremism requires political, governance, and economic reform that will provide lasting reductions in the tensions between competing sects, ethnic group, tribes, and other major factions. Above all, development must look beyond the macroeconomics of each war-torn state, and focus on the economics of each fact in ways that bring enough equity and acceptance to produce lasting stability.

Iraq provides a critical test case. Defeating ISIS in Iraq will not—by itself—deal with any of Iraq's broader problems in politics, governance, and economics, and may well be the prelude to new forms of conflict between (and within) the Shiites and Sunnis, Arabs and Kurds, various extremist groups, and the remnants of ISIS.

Iraq also offers unique opportunities relative to other conflict states. It does not face the same level of post-conflict challenges as Syria, Libya, Somalia, the Sudans, Yemen, or Afghanistan. It did achieve substantial levels of development relative to other “failed states” in spite of nearly a half century of revolution, turmoil, and war—and it has substantial petroleum income.

This does not mean, however, that there is any guarantee that the defeat of ISIS will bring stability, recovery, or successful national development unless Iraq has substantial outside help. Iraq was a “failed state” in virtually every respect before ISIS invaded and is still largely a failed state. Ending ISIS's physical "caliphate" in Iraq will not end ISIS or the broader threat of terrorism and Islamist extremism.

Dealing with these civil challenges has two dimensions. First, Iraq faces many short-term challenges in creating stable postwar civil order where U.S. diplomatic efforts will be needed to help it shape its future . Finding a stable relationship between the central government and the Kurdish regional government presents a critical challenge, as does finding a stable relationship between Sunni and Shi'ite Arab and protecting minorities. Moreover, each major sectarian and ethnic group in Iraq has its own, sometimes violent, internal divisions. Each has so far concentrated far more on gaining political power than shaping a stable future for Iraq.

Unless Iraq's leaders can come together and govern far more effectively, defeating ISIS may well be a prelude to continuing ethnic and sectarian crises or civil war. While the war against ISIS has created some degree of cooperation, it is important to note that the ISIS invasion was enabled by massive misgovernment under former Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, and a steady rise in ethnic and sectarian violence—violence that had risen back to the 2008 levels of civil conflict by the time ISIS invaded Fallujah in January 2014.

Iraq has already been forced to deploy extensive forces to try to secure its border with Syria, and it is still unclear that it can develop the level of security it needs along that border. Significant tensions and risks of violence exist within the Kurdish, Sunni Arab, and Shi'ite Arab factions, and among the competing groups within each faction. In addition, a Kurdish referendum that called for Kurdish independence has already led the central government to send forces to seize back the territory around Kirkuk and move forces to the dividing line between the areas under central government and Kurdish Regional Government control.

The fighting against ISIS has led to the creation of various Shi'ite and Sunni militias that pursue their own agendas and divide military advisory efforts by the U.S. and Iran. Iraq is not able to choose its neighbors or its “friends.” Other powers like Russia, Iran, Turkey, other Arab states, and the United States all have conflicting interests and compete for influence.

Second, many of the reasons why Iraq is a "failed state" are structural, and not the result of the impact of war, internal political differences, and pressures from outside powers . Iraq's governance is corrupt and dysfunctional at every working level from the central government down to local government. Iraq's justice systems are weak, sometimes virtually non-existent at the local level, and often corrupt and ineffective. Iraq has critical economic problems at every level, and it has long been under acute population pressure in spite of the impact of its wars.

This complex mix of short-term and structural pressures makes creating any form of lasting stabilization, recovery, and movement towards development a challenge that will require years of patient outside advice and support. It also makes it grossly unrealistic to assume that stability can be accomplished simply by political dialogue, or that recovery and development can take place by implementing some form of nation-wide economic reforms that ignore the need to reduce regional, ethnic, and sectarian differences —and the role played by given powerbrokers— in various parts of Iraq. Far too many recent U.S. and other outside efforts to bring stability to Iraq at the end of the major fighting with ISIS ignore these realities, and do not address the full range of challenges that will to shape Iraq's "post-ISIS" future for at least the next half decade.

Dealing with Structural Challenges

No one can predict how the short-term challenges that now divide Iraq will evolve. This analysis does not attempt to address the immediate problems in dealing with the political, sectarian, and ethnic divisions in Iraq, and they must be dealt with if Iraq is to successfully address its structural problems.

It is possible, however, to assess the depth and structural nature of Iraq’s broader structural failures and challenges. These include failures in governance, economics, and demographics which have developed over decades. They also include factors like population pressure and the prolonged impact of key factors like poverty, unemployment, and the gross—state-centric—distortion of the nation's economy.

The data available are uncertain in many cases, and one key challenge is to provide better data and diagnostics. Accordingly, this analysis draws on data from a wide range of sources. It relies primarily, however, on well-established sources of expertise like the World Bank, IMF, CIA, UN, Transparency International, Institute for the Study of War (ISW), and the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).

It addresses Iraq's deeper structural issues with a focus on six key sets of challenges:

  • Impact of past divisions and conflicts,
  • Ethnic and sectarian challenges,
  • Human challenges,
  • Governance challenges,
  • Economic challenges, and
  • The challenges posed by the cost of Military and Security Forces.

Iraq is still a country with vast opportunities, but this study warns that Iraq faces critical structural challenges in each of these areas which could leave it a violent and divided failed state indefinitely into the future. Short-term political compromises cannot deal with any of these issues or maintain a lasting peace.

No One Can Help an Iraq that Will Not Help Itself

The analysis of these challenges also shows that Iraq’s problems cannot be solved through some burst of outside aid, and a fixed approach to finding broad solutions, like some modern form of the Marshal Plan. Success will require years of patient effort, careful diagnostics and planning, and adaptation to the changing flow of events. However, the scale and complexity of Iraq’s structural problems, the political challenges they create, and the cost of the resources needed to deal with them, make one thing all too clear.

Iraq can only hope for near-term stability and security if its leaders look beyond the immediate priority of finding some practical solution to Iraq's ethnic and sectarian divisions, face the seriousness of these challenges, examine possible solutions, and establish clearer priorities and options for dealing with them.

No mix of outside efforts, aid, or advice can deal with the scale of the structural challenges outlined in this study unless Iraq's leaders take responsibility for their country and the broader consequences of their actions. The past and current mistakes of outside powers and factions may be all too real, but they are irrelevant. No one can successfully help an Iraq that does not help itself.

Iraq’s leaders can only succeed if they look beyond the tensions that divide them, and find some way to work together . The first step is to take advantage of the defeat of ISIS's "caliphate," and actually find a common path to short-term stability and the ability to work towards common goals. Iraqis also need to understand—as do the leaders and peoples of all other failed states—hoping for outside aid on the scale needed to deal with their problems—or blaming outside powers and interests for their current problems—will be an exercise in self-destructive futility. The past is the past, and no real-world combination of no outside states has the required resources, mix of national interests, and/or real-world capability.

Iraq cannot succeed entirely on its own. It will need outside advice and support, and some financial aid for years until Iraq's progress reaches a self-sustaining level. Outside states like the United States—and international institutions like the World Bank—do have a common interest in helping Iraq, and a moral responsibility to do so, but only if Iraq's leaders can come together and show that such help will serve a clear purpose .

This leadership must also be honest about the speed with which Iraq can meet its challenges and will often have to offer hope and limit progress as a promise for the future. Dealing with some of Iraq's challenges will be a matter of years and possibly even decades. There are many useful steps Iraq can take in the short term, but even a proper diagnostic effort will require years of in-country effort. Only years of consistent Iraqi effort can create the kind of ongoing planning and management effort to deal with Iraq’s evolving problems and needs.

This is why it is so critical that Iraq’s leaders understand that they—and they alone—must assume responsibility for creating the necessary politics, leadership, and institutions that can ensure Iraq’s success. Iraq’s past tendency to try to export blame and responsibility will only end in another exercise in self-destructive behavior, regardless of the faults of outside states and institutions.

Outside states, international aid organizations, and NGOs need to face these realities as well. As the failures of the U.S.-led aid efforts during 2003-2011 showed all too clearly, no outside power can help an Iraq that is not prepared and organized to actively meet the full range of challenges outlined in this report.

These same lessons about the costs of a nation's failure to assume responsibility for its own future have emerged again and again since World War II. The end result of exporting responsibility, and depending on outside aid efforts, may allow Iraq’s leaders to focus on their own or factional interests and dodge full responsibility for their actions. It will, however, end in failure, create crises that many such leaders will not survive, and create growing resentment and tension that may well divide the nation or lead to new forms of civil war.

Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy