Last month, as I traveled through Baghdad and northern Iraq on a trip facilitated by the United Nations Refugee Agency, the Iraqi government marked the second anniversary of its victory over ISIS. Yet our journey — from the rubble of western Mosul, to the now-silent Sunni side of Tel Afar, to isolated tribal areas on the Syrian border — revealed the enduring physical and psychological devastation wrought by ISIS. Left unaddressed, the group’s painful legacy of human suffering, trauma, and displacement could usher in ISIS 2.0.
The timing of the U.S. decision to kill Iran’s Gen. Qasem Soleimani could not have been worse. Even if the drone strike does not lead to war with Iran, it has already led U.S. forces to pause anti-ISIS operations. U.S. forces may yet be ejected from Iraq, and with them the best hope of staving off the return of ISIS and its challenge to regional and global stability. This must not be forgotten as U.S. leaders consider their next steps.
Our delegation traveled across Erbil, Dohuk and Ninewa provinces, observing ISIS’ messy aftermath. The ruins of west Mosul rival the worst of World War II-era destruction. Blocks of the city are still rubble.
Elsewhere, an eerie absence served as a reminder of ISIS’s chaos. Driving through the mixed Sunni-Shia town of Tel Afar, the Sunni side of town lay empty. Numerous Iraqi Shia armed group flags were fluttering, a testament both to the return of the city’s Shia population and the distant prospect that its Sunni residents will be back anytime soon.
At the western edge of Ninewa, near the Syrian border, we came to a desolate village. Sandbagged ISIS military positions were evident in the wreckage of destroyed homes. We had lunch with Sunni tribe members, who told us that their isolated community feels abandoned by the Iraqi government, and tainted, in the eyes of some Iraqis, as ISIS sympathizers.
Across Iraq, local demographics are shifting. Some six million Iraqis fled the chaos unleashed by ISIS. Nearly 1.5 million remain displaced, the vast majority in northern provinces. They are the hardest cases: people unlikely to return home soon out of fear or stigma.
In Dohuk, we visited an internally displaced persons camp built for Yazidis who sought refuge from the genocide committed by ISIS. Established in December 2014, this camp had an air of permanence with concrete living structures and its dirt roads lined with little shops. We drove through during the “evening rush” as many camp residents were returning home from work in the nearby community. As with most Iraqi Yazidis, they are reluctant to return to their homes in Sinjar, fearful of nearby Sunni communities and distrustful of security forces who failed to protect them from ISIS.
The situation is even bleaker for those families who are expected to eventually return from the Al Hol camp in Syria; most will be ostracized given their perceived ISIS affiliations. The Iraqi government’s current plan is to hold these returning people in a refurbished camp, isolated from their home communities. Such long-term encampment would virtually guarantee a second generation of ISIS.
Nearly everyone we encountered was bearing invisible wounds, powerful reminders of the human toll taken by ISIS occupation. Everyone has a story to tell, although not all are able to tell them. In Mosul, horrific descriptions of life under ISIS occupation would occasionally surface: friends lost to ISIS brutality; children witnessing unspeakable crimes; families subsisting on grass during Mosul’s besiegement. One local aid worker recounted an agonizing three-year separation from his family. As ISIS arrived, the family fled to a nearby town, only to fall back under ISIS control a week later as the group extended its reign. The aid worker left the town to help with UN operations and found himself cut off from his family, unable to see them for three years until Mosul was liberated.
The Yazidi community suffers from particularly deep trauma. Young Yazidi women kidnapped and trafficked as sex slaves by ISIS suffer from depression and suicide. Those who had children by ISIS fighters must give their children up if they return to their community. Many Yazidi women are still missing in Syria. Other Yazidi victims remain buried in mass graves, and the community is seeking the accelerated return of the remains of their loved ones so that they may get closure.
This bleak landscape is not without its bright spots. The UN Refugee Agency, the UN Development Program, and other U.S.-funded organizations are helping people to return home. They are stabilizing ISIS-liberated areas, restoring essential services such as water and electricity, rehabilitating schools and hospitals, and repairing damaged homes. Several groups are also seeking to address other needs including job creation and psychosocial assistance. A project we visited at the Dohuk camp helps Yazidi women earn an income through a new restaurant that features traditional Yazidi dishes.
Much remains to be done, and urgently. The United States should move to repair its ties with the Iraqi government to forestall the forced exit of U.S. forces from Iraq. Washington should then work closely with Baghdad to relieve the conditions that fomented the rise of ISIS and allow Iran to deepen its influence. Ultimately, the United States and Iran must de-escalate tensions, ideally by reinvigorating diplomatic channels. The current Iraqi government crisis must also be resolved with the selection of an interim prime minister followed by new elections.
In the long term—assuming this moment of crisis can be overcome—U.S. leadership will be essential for catalyzing international efforts to address the many facets of Iraq’s post-ISIS recovery. Improving governance, addressing widespread trauma and fostering reconciliation across the many communities impacted by ISIS’s reign of terror will not only help ensure against ISIS’s resurgence but also serve as the most effective hedge against Iranian influence. Donors should invest more in humanitarian relief for the 1.5 million displaced Iraqis who remain outside of their homes or have recently returned to their villages, as well as community reconciliation and psychosocial programming; these efforts can be ongoing regardless of the political turmoil in Baghdad. Finally, the Iraqi government must be dissuaded from separating and encamping families with perceived ISIS affiliations, including those returning from Al Hol camp in Syria. Instead, efforts should focus on disengaging all but those responsible for ISIS atrocities and reintegrating them into their home communities as the country rebuilds.