Men help unload a supply of mineral water for displaced civilians at a shelter in Makhmour, east of Mosul, Iraq, on March 28, 2016.

Men help unload a supply of mineral water for displaced civilians at a shelter in Makhmour, east of Mosul, Iraq, on March 28, 2016. AP / Alice Martins

After Mosul Falls, How Much Rebuilding Help Should the US Give?

Restoring stable governance means creating a government that can supply basic services — and there are several ways the United State can provide assistance.

As the siege of Mosul progresses to its logical conclusion, the debate over what comes next is heating up. Some say creating workable governance in a complex socio-cultural environment should be left to local stakeholders, with the U.S. staying out of it altogether. Others, like retired Gen. David Petraeus, argue for robust U.S. engagement, as was offered in Mosul and Ninevah in 2003. The debate’s outcome will shape not only Iraq’s future, but American post-kinetic engagement in other parts of the Middle East, if not further afield.

As policy options evolve, it will be useful to remember that creating legitimate governance also means creating a government that can deliver at least basic social and economic services. What the U.S. least needs in Iraq right now is a newly created Mosul-Nineveh government that is unable to deliver basic services, adding pressure to the inevitable cultural fissures that the new government will also have to deal with.

In the context of irregular warfare, such services address the basic needs of the target population, establishing the social and economic conditions required for stabilization. They include transportation, power, water, communications, basic health and education, and the creation of economic opportunity and jobs. The last is complex, and largely dependent on the others. Core infrastructure creates an environment where business can thrive, while health and education produce workforces that meet business labor demand.

The question of how far the U.S. is willing to go in Mosul—both politically and financially—should be answered ahead of time. The risk is that if we’re in for a dime, we’ll be in for a dollar. All-in U.S. engagement in governance can easily segue into leadership responsibility for stabilization and reconstruction. Depending on the level of destruction that accompanies the removal of ISIS, stabilizing and reconstructing Mosul could be an expensive and long-term proposition. And America isn’t known for its political tenacity in supporting expeditionary exercises that look to the man on the street like nation-building. 

The all-in option also raises the question of which federal agency would oversee the actual stability and reconstruction work. As much as soldiers hate the idea, the last 15 years’ experience has proven that among U.S. agencies, only the Department of Defense has the ways and the means to succeed.

My own thinking is that the U.S. would be best served by taking a narrow mission approach to Mosul, starting with defining mission success there as dislodging ISIS from the city. Period. After Mosul falls, our new mission should include assisting with—but not owning—establishment of a governing structure there. The U.S. would act only as part of a larger coalition effort driven and owned by local stakeholders.  

Arms-length engagement also applies to re-establishing basic services. The U.S. should stand ready to assist with funding, but it should carefully circumscribe areas of assistance to only those which provide basic services and tangibly help legitimize whatever governance structure evolves.

Most importantly, stability and reconstruction should be executed through proxies rather than directly, to avoid ownership and minimize the likelihood of getting sucked into an expensive, open-ended, long-term, city- or province-building effort. This is best done through grants tied to specific projects or sectors, but where there is no substantive involvement of the U.S. government.  

There are many good proxy institutions that can be used for arms-length assistance in Iraq. These include the World Bank, through its program to reconstruct infrastructure and restore public services in liberated municipal areas; the Islamic Development Bank; moderate Islamic foundations like Aga Khan; United Nations agencies already working there on humanitarian, refugee, social and economic development issues; and non-governmental organizations working there on health and education.

Taking Mosul will be like the dog that catches the pickup truck. After it falls, arms-length engagement that leaves local stakeholders owning governance, and proxy development organizations owning stability and reconstruction, would limit U.S. entanglement there at the same time that it addresses the yin-yang problem of government legitimacy and basic service delivery. And if the U.S. gets it right, it could also establish a model for engagement in other post-war environments in the Middle East and elsewhere.