PrintPrint CiteCite
Style: MLAAPAChicago Close


The Other Battle in Iraq

Author: Joe Siegle
April 13, 2003


Now comes the hard part. While some tough battles remain, ultimate success in Iraq depends on winning the peace. Rebuilding a society traumatized by war, internal divisions and years of deception and tyranny will be an immense challenge. The first step is gaining the support of ordinary Iraqis. And for many Iraqis their most immediate concerns are the basics: ensuring they have enough water, food, medicine and security. Without these, the battle for hearts and minds will surely be lost.

There are already reports of severe shortages in parts of the country. This is on top of decades of declining living standards caused by Saddam Hussein's misrule, resulting in 60 percent of Iraq's 25 million people being dependent on food assistance. Damage to water- pumping facilities in Baghdad, Basra and elsewhere has left millions of people without potable water, increasing the risk of illness and the rapid transmission of disease; cases of diarrhea among children are on the rise. Hospital medical supplies are exhausted. And stocks of food are expected to run out in a matter of weeks. Some are predicting that this will be the largest humanitarian assistance operation in history.

Addressing these concerns will require sorting out competing bureaucratic responsibilities. Not only are there ongoing disagreements between the State Department and the Department of Defense over who will manage the reconstruction effort, there are also disputes between the United States and the United Nations.

Post-conflict settings -- such as in Kosovo, Rwanda, East Timor and Bosnia -- are typically administered by the United Nations with support from willing government partners and private humanitarian agencies. But from the U.S. perspective, it was American and British blood and treasure that were shed to topple Saddam. And from that viewpoint, the right to shape events in the postwar phase should belong to the United States, too.

To do that, though, would be shortsighted. Not only would it make the Iraqis wary, it would further alienate international relationships already strained by the divisions over Iraq.

A look at the priorities in Iraq points to how these responsibilities can and should be shared:

  • Guarantee security

    Lack of security is the most significant obstacle to providing humanitarian assistance. The nearly limitless supply of weapons and general lawlessness in the wake of the drive to take Baghdad leaves civilians -- Iraqis and nonIraqis alike -- highly vulnerable.

    This is a job for the U.S. and British militaries. They are reluctant to take on policing actions because it deviates from their war-fighting mandate. However, they are the only ones with the fire- and manpower to provide sufficient stability over this California-sized nation.

    The Pentagon can make its greatest contribution to the post- conflict context by ensuring security, leaving the processes of rebuilding Iraqi society to the State Department. Over the next several weeks and months an international constabulary can be brought in and uncorrupted Iraqi police can resume these responsibilities in the municipalities.

  • Defuse fears about U.S. aims

    The single greatest social obstacle to winning the peace is the fear among many Iraqis that the United States intends to stay on as an occupying force and take control of Iraqi oil fields. If this perception takes root, the mood in Baghdad toward Americans will quickly shift, and the likelihood of guerrilla attacks and other forms of civilian resistance will increase.

    That's why the United States needs to internationalize the humanitarian assistance effort as quickly as possible. This means establishing the United Nations as the coordinating entity for humanitarian aid. The United States could reap the benefits of being seen as a liberator, while putting the lie to the occupier label. Moreover, this opens the door to additional skills and resources. Many countries and nonprofit agencies want to contribute. The rubric of the United Nations provides a vehicle for them to do so.

  • Meet basic needs

    There is already some coordination on the ground, even before formal arrangements have been made. UNICEF, with 50 years of experience in Iraq, is planning to restore the water and sewage facilities throughout the country. The International Committee of the Red Cross is providing medical assistance to Iraqi civilians. The U.S. Agency for International Development has pre-positioned relief commodities in neighboring countries and is signing contracts for the construction of roads and schools. The World Health Organization is attempting to deliver medical supplies, water-testing equipment and 50 surgical kits capable of serving 5,000 interventions; however, it is constrained by the ongoing insecurity.

    Private humanitarian agencies are beginning quick-impact projects and conducting needs assessments. A ship from the United Arab Emirates is also off the port of Umm Qasr with relief supplies. The United Nations Development Programme is planning to focus on emergency infrastructural repairs, particularly electrical grids, and land-mine removal.

    Prior to the war, under the oil- for-food program, the United Nations provided food to 16 million Iraqis. If this program is reconstituted quickly, the World Food Programme plans to deliver up to 480,000 tons of food (some provided by the United States) per month.

  • Build trust

    Successful reconstruction depends on Iraqis regaining control over their lives and their country. This is not as easy as it might sound. Habituated to a system of intimidation, propaganda and corruption, Iraqis are understandably cautious of U.S. intentions. All actions will be scrutinized for their hidden meaning, including the process by which assistance is provided.

    To build trust will require the active participation of the Iraqi population in as many phases of the reconstruction effort as possible -- identifying priorities, articulating which existing systems work well and which do not, guiding assistance operations in a culturally appropriate manner, etc.

    Beyond that, international assistance efforts should be as transparent as possible. Not only will this foster trust, it sets precedents for the growth of functional Iraqi institutions over the long term. Given their reputation for independence and community facilitation, nongovernmental organizations have an indispensable role to play here.

  • Build sustainability

    One risk every humanitarian assistance operation faces is creating dependencies. For example, open-ended food assistance creates a disincentive to work. Importing goods that could be purchased inside the country inadvertently drives local entrepreneurs out of business.

    This is particularly important in Iraq, where substantial human and institutional capacity exists. International assistance efforts should plug into whatever functional systems and capacities they can. The emphasis should be on creating jobs while providing assistance. This will facilitate Iraqis taking control of their reconstruction. It will also reduce the time period for the reconstruction effort.

    The stakes for getting the reconstruction right are high. Not only will the reconstruction effort shape Iraqi perceptions of the United States as liberator or occupier, it will shape perceptions in the Middle East and beyond.

    Clearly, some in the region would like to see us fail. They would enjoy nothing more than the United States becoming bogged down in a context of steady guerrilla attacks, similar to what the Israelis faced in Lebanon.

    But others are watching hopefully to see if the United States is genuinely committed to improving the status of ordinary Arabs. Nurturing the prospects of a more hopeful future among the legions of Arab youth would take much of the punch out of radical ideologies that blame the region's woes on the West.

    Cooperation on the humanitarian assistance front can give substance to the mantra of keeping the priorities of the Iraqis at the forefront of all reconstruction decision-making.

Joseph Siegle is the Douglas Dillon Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is co-authoring a book on democracy and economic development.

More on This Topic