What happens after a battle is as important as the fight itself. This is probably felt most keenly by members of the 82nd Airborne Division’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team who recently returned to Fort Bragg, N.C., from Iraq, and by the many members of the North Carolina National Guard units that have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years.
The question of what happens next hung over every day of my recent trip to Iraq. Now that the war to end ISIS’s rule over territory has ended, the critical battle against the extremists’ ideology must take center stage. As I heard repeatedly, ISIS didn’t drop from the sky, but rather emerged from seeds still present in Iraq today.
With new parliamentary elections scheduled for May, Iraqi leaders and citizens will have the singular opportunity to rise above the last 15 years of war and choose a more accountable and inclusive government that embraces the many religious and ethnic groups of Iraq. Or, if Iraq instead re-establishes a sectarian-based government that excludes wide swaths of the population – an exclusion that fueled ISIS’s rise in 2012 – the country could easily fall back into another round of conflict and terror.
The speaker of the Iraqi parliament, Dr. Saleem al-Jubouri, puts it like this: “We don’t need more weapons or training as much as we need open minds and a willingness to co-exist peacefully and respect diversity.”
A peaceful Iraq is not a pipe dream.
Consider what happened in the Iraqi region that U.S. troops called the “Triangle of Death.” As U.S. troops struggled to end tribal warfare south of Baghdad in 2007, their commanders asked the U.S. Institute of Peace – a non-partisan, national institute specializing in conflict resolution – to broker a peace accord among the 31 local tribes. Working with local partners and tribal leaders, the Institute mediated a peace agreement that has kept the region calm for more than a decade.
U.S. combat deaths in the Triangle fell from 50 in the year before the peace accord to one in the year after. The army was able to reduce its force from 3,500 troops to 650, a savings of $150 million per month. The peacemaking effort cost an estimated $1.5 million, roughly the price of one Tomahawk cruise missile.
In meetings with Sunni, Shia, Kurdish, Christian, Shabak, Yazedi and other leaders, I heard a full-throated call for reconciliation. People are tired, and most importantly, they understand that the stability of Iraq requires a more inclusive approach to politics, economics and security. This is 101 of peacebuilding – marginalizing whole groups within your country rarely leads to anything but conflict.
To prevent another costly round of violence in Iraq, the U.S. and our international partners must remain engaged to help the Iraqis rebuild roads, schools and hospitals. But as importantly, after a decade and a half of war, Iraqis need to rebuild the tattered fabric of their society.
With ISIS on the ropes, and U.S. troop levels expected to be reduced, it is easy for Americans to prefer to disengage from Iraq.
That would be a mistake. The United States still has considerable credibility and influence among Iraqi factions. The parliamentary elections in May will have critical implications for consolidating military gains and keeping Iraq on a path toward peace and stability. Supporting a fair and inclusive election process and a government that will deliver for the people is key to achieving these objectives.
The path ahead will be difficult. But, with some of the largest U.S. military installations in the world, North Carolinians know that we’ve sacrificed too much and come too far in Iraq to let this opportunity for peace slip away.