From counter-ISIL to post-ISIL: Laying the groundwork for enduring reconciliation in Iraq

Editor’s Note: As part of this year’s U.S.-Islamic World Forum, many of our participants are writing posts on Markaz to share their thoughts on one of the diverse topics being discussed at the Forum in Doha, Qatar. We hope you will join us by watching live webcasts, or following the conversation on Twitter with #USIslam15.

Over the past ten months, the U.S. government and an international coalition comprising some 60 nations have been pursuing a multifaceted strategy for dealing with the terrorist insurgency movement ISIL. Recognizing that ISIL is a complex and multi-dimensional phenomenon, this strategy involves many components, including direct military action against the group’s positions and assets; efforts to disrupt the flows of foreign fighters and finances that sustain ISIL; communications and messaging work to reveal the true face of this criminal organization; and significant humanitarian commitments to support the many thousands who have fled ISIL and its atrocities.

A sense of political and economic exclusion on the part of key communities, growing sectarian tensions, and a security vacuum in certain parts of the country provided fertile ground for ISIL to advance into Iraq in the summer of 2014. Therefore, in seeking to address the root causes of this problem, the U.S. and its coalition partners place a particular premium on ensuring more inclusive and effective governance for the people of Iraq and a robust focus by the Iraqis on stabilizing areas liberated from ISIS. The government of Iraq leads this endeavor and Prime Minister Al-Abadi has committed to an ambitious national program that involves elements of political decentralization alongside efforts to address the basic needs of the country’s population.

While efforts by the central government in Baghdad are likely to be the single greatest factor bearing on inter-communal reconciliation in Iraq, such top-down approaches will have the greatest likelihood of success when pursued in tandem with efforts to rebuild and strengthen communal ties. What can civil society and local communities be doing now to strengthen the fabric of Iraqi society so that when ISIL collapses, is defeated, or driven out, Iraq does not collapse into chaos or civil war? How can communities work collectively to change perceptions and circumstances on the ground in ways that will prevent a future iteration of ISIL from taking root down the line? Making space for religious and communal pluralism is key, and here Iraqi civil society—such as religious leaders, community notables, and professional associations—has a key role to play alongside crucial support from the international community and other local and regional stakeholders.

Among the key questions that need to be answered in the short term are how to deal with the likelihood of intensified sectarian tension, fear and distrust as efforts proceed to liberate ISIL-held territory—particularly where popular militia forces are involved. Can building networks of trust between local religious leaders from various communities help to stave off escalating spirals of violence? Looking further down the road, other key issues to be addressed include security arrangements and stronger political inclusion for displaced Christians, Yezidis and other minority groups, particularly in northern Iraq. How can we make it possible for those communities to re-invest in the idea that they have a safe and secure future in their own country? Where levels of grievance and distrust between Shi’a and Sunnis or between other combinations of Iraqis are highest, how might efforts at the community level in key locales support the Prime Minister’s national plan? Inter- and intra-religious collaborations designed to address core grievances around access to basic services, education, and unemployment might serve as a means to build the kind of trust and reciprocity needed to allow top-down reconciliation efforts to find purchase.

At a time when the coalition’s efforts to combat ISIL are facing renewed challenges, it may seem premature to be thinking and talking about post-ISIL. However, maintaining a clear focus on longer term questions of inclusiveness, governance, and community security must be an integral part of the partnerships and collective work we refer to today as counter-ISIL.