2017 was one of the most significant years in Iraq’s modern history. The significance is not only because of the victory against ISIS, preventing the division of the country, nor the complete removal of the UN sanctions against Iraq. It is more than all that put together. The significance comes from the fact that Iraq showed that it has the potential to overcome the challenges that threatened its existence, proving all the analysis and predictions about its end to be incorrect. It showed that if there is enough will, the impossible can be achieved.
That said, the challenges ahead of Iraq in 2018 are not smaller than those faced in 2017. The importance of succeeding in overcoming these challenges stems from the fact that they are a continuation of the path Iraq has started to follow after Al-Abadi’s government took over in 2014. The following represents the most important challenges that Iraq will face in 2018.
As many analysts have pointed out, while ISIS has been militarily defeated, as a terrorist organization it is still capable of posing a threat to Iraq’s security and stability. Furthermore, new terrorist groups are emerging, especially in the ‘disputed areas’, which represent a hotbed for outlaws. Splinter cells from ISIS, in cooperation with ex-Ba’athists and radical secessionists, are actively working on instigating ethnic and sectarian tensions in these areas and undermining the government efforts to control the fragile situation there.
The difference, however, is that ISIS capabilities, as well as the new groups, are drastically limited while Iraq’s intelligence capacities have improved tremendously. According to knowledgeable sources, the intelligence the Iraqis have gathered in their offensive against ISIS will take years to analyze but represents a treasure of information that will help improve not only the security of Iraq but also that of Europe and the rest of the world.
The other challenge that Iraq has to manage is the bilateral relations between the federal government and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) based on clear and sound principles.
Although an important development, the Iraqi government regaining control over Kirkuk and the majority of the disputed areas should not be seen as a victory against the Kurds. Rather, it must be looked at in terms of re-imposing the law over areas that have been suffering from lawlessness for a very long time, despite what the KRG claims. This lawlessness has not been a problem for Baghdad only but also for the Kurds themselves who had to watch their natural resources be exploited and cheaply sold on the international markets with no benefit whatsoever returning to them. The beneficiaries were only the ruling parties of the KRG who pocketed the money instead of paying citizens their salaries. This has led to large demonstrations throughout the region, with several people dead and many wounded because of the clashes between the protestors and the Kurdish security forces.
Part of the challenge facing Baghdad in 2018 is to gain the trust of Kurdish citizens. Baghdad needs to engage in public diplomacy with the Kurdish people. Showing the Kurdish people some respect through interacting with them directly, and paying their salaries will go a long way. Hotlines and public engagement whenever possible is important. Baghdad needs to work hard on establishing media organizations that broadcast in Kurdish. Ignoring these issues represents more of a loss for Baghdad than that it would for the Kurds.
Kurdish citizens need to have a feeling that Baghdad cares about them, and yes, they need to see Baghdad compete with Erbil over serving them. This is not about scoring political points, as much as it is about Baghdad keeping its promise of supporting the Kurdish people instead of using them in dispute with Erbil. This is easier said than done given that any dispute with the KRG will have some negative impact on the Kurdish people. However, Baghdad needs to be strategic to find solutions that benefit the Kurdish people, given the fact that the KRG continues to shamelessly exploit the difficult situation of its own citizens to score political points against Baghdad.
The propaganda apparatus of the ruling parties in the KRG has always viewed Baghdad as the aggressor and the source of all trouble in order to hide its failures. While these parties accuse Baghdad of not having changed its mentality after 2003, the reality is that the mentality of the Kurdish ruling parties is the one that has not changed in decades. The situation of the KRG today resembles that of an authoritarian regime more than a participatory system that is part of the democratic New Iraq.
As for how to deal with the KRG, the federal government should not commit the same mistake of reaching ad-hoc agreements with the KRG over and over again, instead of achieving some permanent, solid, and legally-binding solutions. If there are legal issues that make a solution complicated, then these issues need to be resolved first based on the constitution and Iraq’s legal system. Postponing the hard talk, as it has been the case year after year, will only complicate the issues further and leave the door open for instability, uncertainty, and potential violence, as it was the case in October 2017, although it was on a limited scale. A robust legal agreement represents the only real chance for peace. Let the negotiations go one for years if they must instead of clashing with the Peshmerga another time.
The third challenge ahead of Baghdad is combating corruption. Achieving this will also advance the political, social, and economic situation in the country. While a popular demand, fighting corruption is a long process and needs a lot of time and effort. Baghdad needs to make it clear to the people that combating corruption is more than arresting the corrupt. Iraq cannot do what its neighbour, Saudi Arabia is doing, which is locking up the ‘corrupt’ in a hotel and not letting them go until they pay back what they ‘owe’. This is not how things are done in a democracy.
From an organizational perspective, fighting corruption requires a change in the way public organizations operate, a show of leadership by those who lead the anti-corruption initiative, and an increase in the capacities of the human resources involved directly in these efforts.
While it is important that Baghdad achieves some quick victories on this level, progress in the long-term is more important than catching a few corrupt people and retrieving a few million dollars. Fighting requires deep change and a long-term commitment, and only credible and faithful leaders who are not looking to score quick political points will make a difference in this regard. And this is why there has been little progress in fighting corruption. Fighting corruption, amongst many other efforts that will lead to real progress, requires “politicians capable of forming a clear vision and making courageous decisions with a high commitment to the application of rule of law, who are characterized by efficiency, integrity and professionalism rather than partisan and sectarian politics.” Unfortunately, Iraq does not have enough leaders with these criteria.
Furthermore, fighting corruption requires serious reform efforts. One of the side effects of reform is changing the status quo, which is based on delicate political balances. The problem is that for the sake of maintaining these balances, a lot of corruption has been ignored. A serious fight against corruption requires brave decisions that will lead to disruption in the political situation in the country. Therefore, anyone who does attempt to combat corruption will gain political enemies. The challenge is to do the right thing despite all that. It might cost those who take on this challenge a lot of political capital. Nevertheless, when it comes to corruption and real reform no exceptions should apply. Sadly, a lot of politicians in Iraq are not willing to engage in that.
Last but not least, fighting corruption and reform requires developing the capacity of the human capital that is going to engage in these efforts. Iraq has not done that despite the fact that human resources who have expertise in the areas of governmental reform and anti-corruption have always been in high demand. The years passed by Iraq did not spend the money when it had it to develop a group of experts in these areas. Now, despite the fact that the country is in a financial crisis, and the government has been abstaining to a large extent from hiring more governmental employees, developing such employees is a must. The public offices today are full of incompetent employees that take the place of those that are competent required to develop these offices and make them more efficient. While it is not easy to get rid of most of them given some outdated laws that make it extremely difficult to fire employees, even if they are incompetent, it remains paramount to make Iraq’s public organizations leaner and to hire more competent people, especially those who will form the influential group that will engage in reform and anti-corruption efforts. Making necessary layoffs requires brave decisions by leaders who are willing to face the public outcry for the sake of doing what is best for the country. But again, a lot of Iraq’s leaders care about the elections more than they do about the health of Iraq’s public organizations.
Despite all that, there is some realistic hope that Iraq in 2018 will achieve important progress in its reform and anti-corruption campaign, assuming it remains serious about the announced intention to take on the challenges ahead.
Muhammad Al-Waeli is an Iraqi commentator on political and social issues. He is currently doing a PhD in Human Resource Management and is interested in politics, media, and development.