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The common test facing Mosul, Iraq, and the entire Arab world

by Rami G. KhouriReleased: 20 Oct 2016

DOHA — The battle for Mosul that has been unleashed this week will focus much attention in the immediate future on a set of conditions that are particular to northern Iraq. Yet there should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that the evolution of Mosul and post-Mosul capture a set of common challenges that apply across the entire Arab world.

The core of these is simply the challenge to shape a normal and relatively efficient country — any Arab country will do — that is stable, productive, economically and environmentally sustainable, and is defined by citizens who feel committed to the common national well-being, because the state offers them and all their fellow citizens dignity, opportunity, security, and equality.

We have many Arab countries with fine attributes and achievements, but none of them meet these criteria. This is because they variously depend on unearned oil and gas income, are built mainly by foreign workers, require massive foreign aid to remain afloat, rely on foreign military support to remain intact (Russian, American, Iranian, British, it does not matter, we are not choosy, any foreign army will do), and produce only a small fraction of their own basic human needs, relying instead on imports.

Mosul and Iraq capture many of these problems, and so also clarify the big tests to come, as we appreciate better when examining how we got here. The fact that Mosul was taken over by ISIS forces two summers ago without a serious fight from any Iraqi armed forces, police, or citizens captures the low point of Iraq’s dysfunctional statehood since the Anglo-American war on it in 2003. Here is the uglier truth: Neither the corrupt, inefficient and fragmented government then, nor the brutality of the ISIS rulers now, are totally unusual phenomena in the modern Arab world. They are only a few degrees more extreme than the poor governance and widespread authoritarianism, autocracy, and political violence that are common to so many Arab countries.

This is because the modern Iraqi state as we have known it in the past century was never defined, infused with values, or credibly validated by its own citizens. Its borders, power structure, policies, and everyday conditions of its citizens were always the result of foreign imperial powers or indigenous, homegrown dictators. It is a massive, cruel, but logical, irony that many of the key leaders who founded and managed ISIS were former intelligence and security officers in the Iraqi Baathist government that ran the country for decades under Saddam Hussein.

The almost seamless transition from the brutal Iraqi to the slightly more brutal Islamic state is a shame that demeans the modern Arab world from both ends of this linear equation of gruesome statehood. It is also an analytical lens through which to ask what happens after Mosul is liberated and ISIS is defeated as a ruling force in those areas it has controlled since mid-2014 in Syria and Iraq.

We should not get lost in the particularities of Mosul and the battle to liberate north-western Iraq, decisive as they are: Iraqi sectarian tensions; the quality of the rebuilding Iraq armed forces; the nature and efficacy of reconstituted police force that can maintain security in both Sunni- and Shiite-majority parts of Iraq; the aims and actions of the Kurds in their autonomous region in northern Iraq; the concerns of Turkey and its active military in Iraq and Syria; Iran’s desired role in Iraq; and, whether Iraqis can end the current dysfunctional national governance system that is riddled with corruption, ineptitude, in-fighting, sectarian suspicions and resentments, and massive instability.

All these factors and a few others (especially foreign powers’ interventions and the condition of next door Syria) will determine how Iraq evolves in the months and years ahead, and whether it can create a national governance system that is at once efficient, inclusive, and most important of all, legitimate in the eyes of its own people. Parallel with this is the challenge of creating an economy that is not anchored mainly in geology and oil, foreign aid, or corrupt crony capitalist systems that persist due to the lack of accountability to the citizenry. Rather, what this and all other Arab countries desperately need is an economy that can employ its own people, create wealth, assist the most needy, and sustain itself in perpetuity.

Mosul’s fate will be a micro version of the bigger test ahead to achieve coherent, stable, equitable, and sustainable statehood for all Iraqis. Mosul captured in recent years the worst aspects of modern Arab governance through authoritarian brutality. With the grace of God, some sensible power-sharing agreements from the many decent and able Iraqis, and foreign armies leaving us alone for a few years, perhaps Mosul and Iraq will seize that elusive prize of normal, stable statehood that has teased so many Arabs for so many years.

Rami G. Khouri is a senior fellow at the American University of Beirut and the Harvard Kennedy School, and can be followed on Twitter @ramikhouri.

Copyright ©2016 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global

Released: 20 October 2016
Word Count: 804

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