We Need to Plan Now for the Day ISIS is Defeated

All signs suggest that the ISIS caliphate’s days are numbered in Iraq. The group has been pushed out of more than half the territory it used to control.

Barely a week goes by without Iraqi security forces and Kurdish peshmerga handing ISIS a new tactical defeat. These forces are now encircling Mosul and preparing to retake it.

But are we ready for the day after?

While many are rightly focused on battle plans to retake Mosul in the coming months, as Counter-ISIS Envoy Brett McGurk recently stated, “Stabilizing areas after [ISIS] can be even more important than clearing areas from [ISIS].”

He’s right: After a city is liberated, there is a crucial window of opportunity to fill the void with humanitarian aid, some basic services and governance. If these needs aren’t met in liberated communities, we risk squandering battlefield sacrifices and sowing the seeds for future instability.

However, current efforts to stabilize liberated areas are lagging dangerously behind the military campaign. First, coalition diplomats often point to the return of displaced people as an informal indicator of success. But the total number of people displaced by the ISIS crisis has grown steadily since the summer of 2014, and now hovers at around 3.3 million people.

In fact, while ISIS has lost half its territory in Iraq, only one-fifth of those who fled their homes appear to have returned.

Furthermore, efforts to stabilize liberated communities where Iraqis are returning remains uneven. Ninevah and Diyala governorates, for example, currently host a similar number of returnees. But Diyala has received less than one-quarter of Ninevah’s total stabilization budget.

Meanwhile, key sectors have received inadequate attention, and returnees have identified community reconciliation as an urgent priority. Yet only 2 percent of funding has been allocated to facilitate local reconciliation.

08_08_ISIS_Mosul_01 Kurdish Peshmerga fighters take control of the outskirts of Mosul on February 6, 2015. Hardin Lang writes that if basic needs aren’t met in liberated communities, we risk squandering battlefield sacrifices and sowing the seeds for future instability. Ari Jalal/reuters

Critics may object to significant investments in the day after, pointing to past failures. But stabilization is not an expensive reconstruction program—it’s a series of quick interventions designed to meet urgent needs. These interventions can help communities begin to recover in the wake of military operations, and can buy time to address the deep-seated grievances that have driven the conflict. Stabilization will also be a key line of defense as ISIS reverts to insurgent and asymmetric warfare.  

To ready this defense, the U.S. and its coalition partners should take the following steps.

First, counter-ISIS coalition member states need a stronger, more consolidated leadership structure when it comes to stabilization. Currently, the coalition working group in charge of stabilization has few responsibilities beyond information sharing.

One option would be to appoint a Baghdad-based coalition ambassador to serve as the civilian lead for stabilization on the ground. A coalition civilian lead could help integrate stabilization into other coalition military campaigns to ensure that there is a plan for the day after liberation.

Second, the United States should lead by example in supporting stabilization. The Obama administration should mobilize assets like USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI) to support stabilization efforts in Iraq. OTI has extensive experience working next to the military and through local authorities in conflict zones. Congress will also need to allocate additional funding to support a more robust U.S. bilateral role in stabilizing liberated communities.  

Third, the coalition should undertake a strategic review of the main drivers of instability and displacement in Iraq. If the return of displaced populations is a key informal indicator for the coalition in measuring stability, it’s important to understand why the rate of return has not kept pace with progress on the battlefield. A review would be the first step in building a comprehensive plan with formal benchmarks for stabilization.  

Fourth, donors must deliver more funding—and quickly. The U.S. alone has spent more than $7.5 billion on military operations since the start of the campaign. By contrast, donors have disbursed just over $80 million in funding for stabilization in liberated areas.

An additional $475 million was pledged a few weeks ago at a coalition conference in Washington, D.C. This is an important step in the right direction, but is inadequate to the task at hand.

The military fight in Iraq against ISIS has made real progress, especially in Iraq. But the U.S. and its coalition partners must move quickly to seize a narrow window of opportunity to turn military success into lasting stability. The obstacles are significant, but the lessons of the recent past underscore the price of failure.

Hardin Lang is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and worked in Iraq for the U.N. from 2003 to 2005.