Many analysts have discussed the “lessons learned” for Afghanistan based on the US’ experience in Iraq. Little has been done to analyze what might be learned for Iraq from the US experience in Afghanistan. Perhaps the first lesson is “never take anything for granted.” After its rout of the Taliban in 2001, the US felt it could largely ignore Afghanistan despite Bush administration’s promises of a “Marshal Plan for Afghanistan” and numerous pledges of economic and social reconstruction aid from a large number of Western countries. When the promised aid was not forthcoming, the results were disastrous. Exploiting the corruption of the current regime of Hamid Karzai, the Taliban have slowly been able to reestablish themselves as a military and political force in Afghanistan. This turn of events required the US and the West to, in effect, create a brand new policy, resulting in considerable loss of life, both Afghan and Western, and the expenditure of huge amounts of money. If the US and its Western allies had consolidated their gains following 2001, starting all over again would not have been necessary.
In Iraq, the Obama administration does not seem to have any comprehensive plan for consolidating what gains have already been made in Iraq. Certainly, Iraq is still experiencing a political gridlock and has yet to form a new government following the March 2010 elections. Corruption is endemic and social services are lacking in much of the country. Ethnic mistrust is still a part of the political and social landscape.
Nevertheless, Iraq has a rudimentary democracy. The March elections were fair by all accounts. There is a vigorous civil society at work. The Iraqi Communist Party recently challenged the inactivity of the Chamber of Deputies (national parliament) and was successful in obtain a court ruling forcing the chamber to begin to meet and conduct the business for which its members were elected last march. Provincial councils have begun to insert themselves into both local and national affairs. For example, the al-Najaf City Council recently voted that the province be allowed to open offices in Iraqi diplomatic missions around the world to promote its economic and touristic interest. This in tunr has caused a broad national debate about whether such offices are legal under Iraq’s constitution, another indicator of a growing national civic engagement.
In Iraq, as in many countries of the Middle East, youth constitute a large segment of the populace. The so-called “youth bulge” is evident in Iraq as well where 65% of the population is under the age of 25. Research that I have been conducting with Iraqi youth from ages 14 through 30 is indicative of how Iraq might potentially develop in the near future. On the one hand, the positive news is that the overwhelming number of youth I have been able to interview are not sectarian in orientation and intuitively understand, as do their elders, that sectarian politics is neither good for Iraq or the type of behavior that bodes well for their future (unless perhaps they are drawn into sectarian criminal organizations). On the other hand, much of what these youth see in the political realm does not convey positive ideas about politics, much less attract many to run for public office. If the type of nepotistic and corrupt elite based politics continues in Iraq, then my data indicate that many youth who have the skills may seek to leave the country and pursue careers abroad rather than in Iraq.
What do these developments in Iraq imply for Afghanistan? Iraq is at a crossroads. It lives in a “rough neighborhood.” With the exception of Turkey, none of its neighbors want to see a democratic, ethnically and religiously pluralistic, and politically stable nation-states consolidate itself in their midst. For Iran, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan and Syria, such a development is a disturbing prospect because of the reformist implications for their own political systems and societies.
Yet the Obama administration has not proposed any innovative policies that would help Iraq continue to consolidate the fragile gains it has made thus far politically, socially and economically. It has not, for example, developed a program that will replace its successful Provincial Reconstruction Teams, even if these were to be largely populated by Iraqis rather than Americans. To be sure, the Iraqis are a tenacious people whose progress since 2003 is remarkable in light of 35 years of highly repressive Ba'thist rule and numerous blunders on the part of the US occupation authority in 2003 and 2004, such as dissolving the Iraqi conscript army, cutting off funds to the state public sector, and pressuring the Iraqis to complete a new constitution in too short a time resulting in a flawed document.
The US should not interfere in Iraq’s internal affairs. However, Iraq continues to seek American technology and technical assistance. Iraqis want our help in the education, health care and the municipal services fields. The Iraqi higher education system desires collaboration with the West. The Iraqi government continues to send many of its university students to study in the United States. The US continues to play a key role in helping Iraq improve its court system and consolidate the rule of law.
In the international arena, the US has played an important role in helping Iraq seek debt forgiveness from loans and reparations that go back to the Gulf War of 1991. The US is one of Iraq’s key allies in major international financial institutions such as the IMF and World Bank. And let’s not forget the critical role that the US plays in Iraq’s efforts tor rebuild its security forces after 2003. The supplying of equipment and training is key to efforts to develop an army that can defend the country and police its long borders and local police forces that can assure citizens’ safety and security.
As with any friendship, this is always a quid pro quo. In exchange for its support, the US can ask of the Iraqi government that is begin to seriously confront corruption, that is follow the constitution and that it more vigorously implement the rule of law. Such behavior will further consolidate democracy and prevent the types of problems that we see with the highly corrupt and personalistic rule of Hamid Karzai in Kabul. Karzai’s behavior represents a perfect foil for the Taliban who can use his administration to justify their own efforts to seize power.
If the response to the arguments presented here is that the US is suffering a major fiscal crisis that has created huge budget deficits, perhaps the Obama administration should make Iraq part of its Stimulus Program. Numerous professionals who have lost their jobs in the US could find work in Iraq under the types of programs I am suggesting. This includes professionals, construction workers, teachers and academics, just to mention a few employment opportunities.
To offset its economic constraints, US policy in Iraq should increasingly assume an international dimension. Our oil rich allies such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait should be pressured to contribute funds to help develop Iraq. While a democratic Iraq might be threatening, a destabilized Iraq, in which the current Iranian regime, along with its Revolutionary Guards, extends its influence, is one of their worst nightmares.
The US needs to learn from Afghanistan that it ignores Iraq at its own peril.