The Other Front Line: Iraqi Schools Need Our Help

By John Paul Schnapper-Casteras

September 16, 2016

Young Iraqis are pushing to reclaim their country from extremism and intolerance, not just by joining the military offensive to oust ISIS from Mosul, but also by enrolling at the American University of Iraq in Sulaimani. These paths are more closely linked than they may seem. In their way, they are both front lines in the battle to stabilize Iraq — and they suggest how policymakers and defense leaders should lay their own plans.

One front line lies at the edges of Mosul, where Iraqi forces have for months been waging a grueling and bloody campaign to retake the country’s second-largest city from ISIS. A generation of young people has been devastated by the group’s reign, which has closed eight universities in northern Iraq, shuttered many schools in eastern Syria, and imposed hyper-fundamentalist curricula on the rest. Roughly half of Syrian children can no longer attend school; many are among the roughly 1.5 million refugees under the age of 18. These disruptions can have stark implications: as one Syrian professor put it in a 2014 study by the Institute for International Education: young men will either “continue their studies, or they will join” ISIS.

A second, figurative front line exists 140 miles away from the looming battle in Mosul. The American University of Iraq in Sulaimani (AUIS) is a bold effort to train the next generation of leaders and thinkers. There, a diverse mix of 1,400 students – including Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen, Yezidis, Christians, Sunni and Shi’a Muslims, about 40 percent of whom are women – study under an American-style liberal arts curriculum. Founded in 2007, AUIS has steadily worked to become a pillar of institution-building in Iraq, overhauling its board in 2012, adopting increasingly detailed financial and governance controls, hiring Ernst & Young as the auditor, and undergoing rigorous accreditation processes. Bruce Ferguson, who took over as AUIS president last month, told me that “since stepping off the plane, [he has] been struck by the positivity and hope on campus,” which features an acclaimed women’s basketball team, volunteer trips to local refugee camps, and a touring Shakespeare troupe. “It’s all quite unremarkable for a university in the U.S.,” Ferguson said, “and thus all the more remarkable to find in bitterly divided Iraq.

These two efforts are intertwined. Once Mosul is reclaimed, coalition forces will need to foster good governance and stability. Key to this will be restoring and reconstituting numerous schools and universities. AUIS demonstrates how this can work, even amid regional turmoil, and that students around the world are still drawn to the American model of education.

Policymakers and senior military officers should consider these connections as they plan for the months and years after Mosul is liberated and ISIS defeated.

To start, the international coalition should coordinate with local ministries of education and non-profits to ensure that tactical gains in Mosul and beyond are swiftly accompanied by a reinstatement of primary, secondary, and higher education. Among other benefits, this will help reintegrate soldiers into civilian life.

Next, at the university level, Washington and the private sector should send more money to private liberal-arts institutions like AUIS, which face mounting financial challenges as a consequence of the conflict. Congress can take a page from history by funding international educational programs, including by ingenious means like the sale of surplus military material, which is how the Fulbright scholarships started after World War II. With greater resources, universities such as AUIS can enroll more refugees and internally displaced persons and provide additional scholarships.

Additionally, President Obama should support the U.N.’s “lost generation” initiative, which already amassed several hundred million dollars in pledges to integrate displaced students into Lebanese and Jordanian schools – yet still faces a significant funding gap. These measures will not be a panacea for Iraq’s many problems, but they will be a start.

Ultimately, the goal must be to look beyond the looming battle for Mosul—as terrible and consequential as that contest seems likely to be—and focus on crafting a new vision for the future: one rooted in education, open-mindedness about different beliefs, and fact-based decision making. As Dwight D. Eisenhower once said, “[i]nformation and education are powerful forces in support of peace. Just as war begins in the minds of men, so does peace." The U.S. model of higher education and the determination of Iraqi youth to build a better future are something that ISIS can never compete with or destroy, and constitute the next front line in the struggle against extremism.

By John Paul Schnapper-Casteras // John Paul Schnapper-Casteras is a Fellow at the Truman National Security Project and a Trustee of the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani.

September 16, 2016