How Congress can help President Trump write the next chapter of US policy in Iraq
by Daniel Benaim & Jorie Feldman
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s visit to Washington next week comes at a moment of flux in both countries. In Washington, a new administration is reviewing its anti-ISIS strategy. Meanwhile, Iraqi forces are poised to retake Mosul, unearthing a thicket of complex problems and looming questions about Iraq’s future.
For Congress, this moment also presents an opportunity to reassert its role and work with the Trump administration to define an appropriate U.S. role in helping Iraq address its security, political, and humanitarian challenges. Alongside an administration populated by Iran hawks and skeptics of civilian power, the Hill can help chart a middle course between a “Mission Accomplished” rush to abandon Iraqis the day after Mosul and mission creep toward maximalist policies inconsistent with America’s current status as invited guests of the Iraqi government – all while mitigating some of the self-inflicted damage of Trump’s rhetoric and policies to date.
While Congress did not pass a new Authorization of Military Force against ISIS during the Obama Administration, it did make important contributions to the fight: appropriating funds to train and equip Iraqi Army, Kurdish Peshmerga, and Sunni forces; raising awareness of the plight of religious minorities; and authorizing record-high humanitarian funds, among other achievements.
Significant work lies ahead for Iraqis, from stabilizing liberated areas to tackling corruption to building up national and local forces. In each of these areas, America’s continued involvement can help maximize Iraqis’ odds of success – with Congress’ help.
Here are some steps Congress can take:
First, clarify America’s intentions and endorse a stay-behind mission: Once ISIS loses Mosul, it will likely revert to a terrorist insurgency. Iraqi forces will need continued U.S. support to act as an effective bulwark against Sunni terrorists and Shia militants alike. That will require a continued presence. The contours will need to be negotiated with Iraq’s leaders. But the time is now, before large-scale fighting finishes and Iraqi campaign season kicks into gear. There is no substitute for the president’s voice, but a Sense of Congress resolution endorsing such a mission and defining guiding principles and U.S. intentions could reassure Iraqis unnerved by Trump’s rhetoric on Iraq’s oil, Iran “taking over,” America creating ISIS, etc.
Second, Congress can provide security funds: the Iraq Train and Equip Fund (ITEF) authorized in 2015 gave U.S. forces much needed flexibility to support Iraqi Army, local Sunni and Kurdish Peshmerga forces. For the Kurdish Peshmerga, strained by ISIS frontlines, collapsing oil prices, and as many as 1.8 million displaced Iraqis and refugees, these funds kept them on the battlefield – and engendered unprecedented cooperation with the Iraqi Army. Local Sunni forces expected to provide security in areas retaken from ISIS will also need extensive U.S. support.
Third, Congress can help ensure that the Trump administration remains focused on the nonmilitary tools necessary to prevent ISIS’ resurgence. We don’t yet know what Trump’s proposed 40 percent cut in foreign aid would mean for Iraq, but now is the wrong time to pull away.
The UN recently estimated that Mosul’s Ninewa province needs $160 million in 2017 alone for humanitarian aid. Without timely international support for governance and humanitarian aid, liberated areas may fall into chaos. Congress should authorize the Defense Department flexibility to spend funds on stabilization projects in newly-liberated areas – and provide authority to transfer funds to the State Department where it is better positioned to help Iraqis quickly restore aid or services.
Congress also has a variety of tools it can use to help – and cajole-- Iraqis to take steps to address longstanding grievances and govern in a way that works for all Iraqis. This includes increasing Iraq’s Foreign Military Financing account earmarked towards security professionalization; and providing State Department democracy bureau grants to Iraqi civil society working to fight corruption.
In Washington, Abadi should also hear a clear message from Congress and the administration that governance issues matter to America –and are part and parcel of denying oxygen to ISIS.
Finally, Congress must help repair the damage of Trump’s travel ban. It was an unconscionable offense that the initial travel ban included Iraqis fighting alongside Americans. The new ban remains misguided, but the fact that Iraqis are exempted presents Congress an opportunity. Members should invite Iraqi counterparts to America and visit Iraq as well. It is also time to review the criteria and expand available slots for Special Immigrant Visas, a program created by Congress to protect those who put their lives on the line for our forces and diplomats and have faced serious repercussions. Refugee resettlement and other exchange programs are also critical to demonstrating to Iraqis fighting ISIS that America respects them.
The authors have both worked on Iraq issues on Capitol Hill and in the previous administration. We know well the challenges of close consultation and constructive cooperation between branches of government. But an unpredictable new moment in both Iraq and Washington demands nothing less.