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Building Sustainable Peace in Iraq: LSE on state-building

ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – The London School of Economics (LSE) launch event of the Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding’s latest volume Building Sustainable Peace in Iraq heard from key academics on the topic of post-conflict development in Iraq on Wednesday, criticising international actors for their lack of understanding around the heterogeneous nature of the country both before and after the 2003 invasion, lamenting the ongoing issues of transitional justice, and suggesting that the model of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) could offer Iraq a better system of security, should the country choose that “learning to live with militias might be the least bad option.”

Shamiran Mako from the Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University opened the conversation, sharing thoughts from her jointly-written introduction to the volume, Evaluating the Pitfalls of External Statebuilding in Post-2003 Iraq (2003–2021), on the failure of securitised statebuilding and the absence of legitimacy in externally-imposed democratisation, as well as her additional article, Subverting Peace: The Origins and Legacies of de-Ba’athification in Iraq.

According to Mako, the over-reliance of the United States on a small circle of previously excluded elites within Iraq (and those initially in exile) combined with the subsequent imposition of top-down democracy from that approach set the path for the crisis of legitimacy and destabilisation of the country, with obvious consequences for the excluded sections of Iraq’s population.

Furthermore, the poor implementation of lustration policies (an instrument of transitional justice) in terms of de-Baathification added to the situation whereby people were excluded, with the sanctions regime hollowing out the state and sustaining tensions between elites and former elites.

“Exclusive and unconstrained lustration created an institutional mechanism that targeted and excluded key segments of the population as perceived regime collaborators, which subverted peacebuilding during the transitional period of the occupation,” she told the audience.

Ruba Ali Al-Hassani, from Lancaster University in the UK, also expanded upon her contribution to the publication, Storytelling: Restorative Approaches to Post-2003 Iraq Peacebuilding, explaining that, “top down destructive storytelling is an interesting lens to view the failures of building sustainable peace in Iraq” – and particularly, “how this relates to the lack of restorative justice, rather than purely retributive justice.”

“Story-telling can play a crucial role in Iraqi state-building”, she told attendees, and “since 2003, the main approaches to peacebuilding have been focused on destructive story-telling… exclusionary practices, dishonesty, mistrust and denial.” The 2019 Tishreen movement sought a new way of communication, she explained, giving the example of their “We Want a Homeland” slogan, which internet-black outs during the protests attempted to curtail.

“Top-down national reconciliation initiatives overlook the significance of, and connection between, story and culture in social conflict resolution,” she explained, making the case that stories in the legal and education systems would promote an inclusive, cross-communal public discourse and “facilitate bottom-up and inclusive peacebuilding practices.”

She stressed that “language matters”, and told the audience that “Iraqi politicians could have done a much better job at uniting people” with their words.

Ibrahim Al-Marashi, from California State University, shared the broader lessons to be drawn from US securitised peacebuilding, as set out in his addition to the volume, Demobilization Minus Disarmament and Reintegration: Iraq’s Security Sector from the US Invasion to the Covid-19 Pandemic, which essentially argues that ethno-sectarian exclusion has undermined the post-invasion attempts at security sector reform (SSR) in Iraq.

The US intervention led to the increased violence of non-state actors, he explained, something he made similarities with in terms of US involvement in Afghanistan, too.

“More than two decades after 2001, these non-state actors exist.”

His paper, he argued, sought to address why efforts to reconstitute a country while the conflict is ongoing is doomed to failure, and that it is a “no brainer” that political exclusion leads to state-opposition, and provides political legitimacy to those who oppose.

“While corruption, poor management, improper training, and lack of equipment contributed to the collapse of the Iraqi military in the face of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria invasion in 2014”, he has written, “the exclusion of Arab and Turkmen Sunnis from the new security sector resulted in this failure”, contributing to the rise of militias in Iraq, complicating SSR, and “emerging as a de-facto strategy in maintaining domestic security.”

LSE Professor Toby Dodge, who chaired the conversation and penned a further chapter of the volume, The Failure of Peacebuilding in Iraq: The Role of Consociationalism and Political Settlements, sought to stress the failure and futility of the US-led invasion, drawing together the panellists’ findings in what he termed “a lessons-learnt situation.”

Ethno-sectarian exclusion played a destructive role in post-2003 Iraq, he summarised, as did the “informal consociational elite bargain”, which undermined the coherence of the state and delegitimised the political system.

In opening out the conversation among the panellists, he sought to bring in the closest comparative example to central and southern Iraq; the Kurdistan Region.

Addressing security sector reform under the auspices of the KRG, Marashi contemplated whether this might be a model for the rest of Iraq.

“If the Iraqi military had not been disbanded, I think Iraq would be in a different place than it is today,” he said in criticism of the decision to create a ‘clean start’ with the institution.

“In terms of what happened with the KRG, this gets to the other work I cited… that learning to live with militias might be the least bad option.”

“Security sector reform in Iraq was allowing the Peshmerga, the KDP, and the PUK to have uniforms but, more or less, be stationed in the territories where they have local buy-in. In this case, if that’s the model… this decentralised military model might be the way forward for co-existence,” he said, making the point that Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) are an entirely different matter, however.

“We’ve seen the crisis that’s emerged between a certain Popular Mobilisation Unit in a recent assasination attempt, but I think there’s something to that model of having local protection forces.”

“Reconstituting a strong, centralised Iraqi government of the past seems to be not only unfeasible but… what the nation needs is security forces that can provide security at their local level, and that is what has been elusive since 2003.”

In response, Dodge made the point that the KRG still has two separate groups run by the two dominant parties and families in the Region, raising the question of who would control local protection forces in the wider country, possibly based on ex-militias, and who would subject them to the rule of law.

“Pershmerga forces still have social capital from their past fighting against Saddam Hussein… that drawing on the past gives them some legitimacy”, Marashi responded. “The KDP and the PUK control them, but a central KRG body, a Ministry of Defense that controls both, as well as the various intelligence agencies affiliated with both parties, that is yet to emerge.”

“That’s why it is the least bad option… there is local buy-in, but there is no centralised body to hold them to account… Let’s not forget that there is a protest movement in the KRG, and the various Peshmergas have used violence against them and Kurdish journalists… no Peshmerga force, as far as I know, has ever been held accountable for attacking a Kurdish journalist in the history of the KRG, post 2003.”

Marashi did, however, end on a somewhat optimistic point. “If you were to read my article and compare it to the news going out in Iraq at the present [the rise of militias, the horror of ISIS], it is quite amazing that the [Iraqi] military, despite its ups and downs, has finally emerged as one institution, according to the latest surveys done in Iraq, that does have some kind of national buy-in.”

“While you have corruption at the state level, and low turn-out during the elections… you do have at least some kind of institutions that, on some level, various Iraqi sects and ethnicities can rally behind.”

The panellists concluded the launch event agreeing that the idea foreign countries can hammer an ideology into a nation is “pure folly”, and that the events leading up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq were “the pinnacle of imperial hubris,” with the destructive consequences of foreign-imposed regime change evident, still, in the country today.

Professor Toby Dodge ended the discussion by drawing back to the present. “We must never forget that the Iraqi population is still suffering; under corruption, violence, militias and no rule of law.”