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How to keep US troops in Iraq another twelve years

Last summer, the jihadists of the Islamic State unleashed a wave of terror against the Yazidi people of northern Iraq in a bloody campaign that the International Criminal Court says may constitute genocide. At the same time, in the northern Iraqi city of Sulaymaniyah, a Kurdish woman named Ala Kamal organized a month-long inter-ethnic fundraiser outside of the Kurdish Parliament. She sought to welcome displaced Yazidi families in order to proactively defuse tensions that might arise. She also initiated outreach to Yazidi religious leaders to erase the ingrained stigma of sexual violence and promote the acceptance of kidnapped Yazidi women upon their return.

All across Iraq today, such dichotomies are common: heroic and encouraging actions by Iraqi citizens taking place alongside barbaric acts of terror. As ISIL attracts the headlines and world’s attention, not surprisingly, the debate on Capitol Hill about where to allocate U.S. resources now centers almost exclusively on how to contain and combat the Islamic State. We must not ignore the important role U.S. assistance has played, and can continue to play, in further building Iraq’s nascent civil society.

{mosads}If we only respond with military measures and emergency relief, the chance of putting Iraq on a more democratic, inclusive path is unlikely and the risk of full-scale instability is great. Congress must accept the gravity of the situation in Iraq as it debates the FY 2016 budget. US legislators must expand beyond the military and humanitarian response to incorporate support of conflict mitigation efforts led by Iraq’s civil society.

The US must recognize that Iraq will not adequately invest in social cohesion programs with competing priorities that are arising from the latest rounds of violence. Falling global oil prices are compounding this issue of limited investment making immediate funding from external sources increasingly urgent.

Fortunately, despite the horrific violence, US investments in strengthening civil society’s voice have already had tangible impact. Mercy Corps, a global humanitarian and development NGO, has worked with 104 Iraqi organizations since 2003 when Saddam Hussein was overthrown. Civil society had been non-existent until then.. But twelve years on, this sector is finally emerging, and with U.S. support can truly flourish and serve a valuable role, even in the midst of a civil war. Just as our military leaders have urged Congress not to abandon Iraq militarily until ISIL is defeated, we too want to urge Congress and the Obama administration not to desert these groups in their infancy.

Mercy Corps recently released a report, Beyond Humanitarian Relief: Strengthening the Foundation for a More Stable Iraq, highlighting the fact that by relying on programs that only address the symptoms of the conflict there is the real potential to create dependencies and sideline the voices of Iraq’s fledgling civil society, which is trying to address the underlying drivers of this conflict: poor governance and political grievances.

It is US-supported civil society initiatives that are encouraging Sunnis, Shiites and Christians alike to feel they have a real stake in their own future. Initial investments of $4.1 million by the State Department in the Iraqi Center for Negotiation Skills and Conflict Management between 2008-2013 allowed the Center to blossom into an Iraqi-led NGO and network of 350 highly influential men and women, Ala Kamal among them, from a broad swath of sectarian and ethnic backgrounds, including religious leaders, tribal elders as well as seven newly elected members of Iraq’s Parliament. The Center has formally negotiated peaceful solutions to over 1,000 conflicts.

If the US genuinely hopes to responsibly scale back its engagement in Iraq, Congress must work with the Administration to support Iraq’s fledgling civil society to prepare for a more stable future. The president’s FY 2016 budget request rightly called out the need to invest Economic Support Funds (ESF) in areas liberated from ISIL control. But investments should not be limited to those areas alone, as many of the factors driving conflict in Iraq pre-date ISIL’s presence. Congress should fully fund the FY 2016 request of no less than $72.5 million in ESF and broaden its focus to support good governance, conflict resolution and civil society programming in all areas of the country. Congress should also ensure that the FY15 funding allocation of $25 million for conflict response programming in Iraq is fully implemented.

If we do not support steps now to build a more inclusive Iraq, the country will surely remain unstable and susceptible to violence, even after ISIL has been forced to retreat. Such a scenario could guarantee a long-term US presence and cost us even more in lives and scarce taxpayer dollars. Let us act boldly today to ensure that 12 years from now, we are not still fighting the same battles.

Diener is deputy director of policy and advocacy for Mercy Corps, as well as the humanitarian organization’s lead on Middle East policy and advocacy.


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